American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan Review

10 October 2016

How had the Virginia, a society that originally never incorporated slaves into their workforce, become so dependent on them to the point that they feared them? This question and the republican belief of freedom in America are the thesis and topic for Edmund S. Morgan’s book. The analysis, done by Morgan, begins back before the beginnings of the colony in Virginia. The colony was originally proposed by Sir Humphrey Gilbert; this idea was thwarted in 1583 when Gilbert’s ship sank. The original plans for this colony, made by Gilbert, did not include “slavery or forced labor of any kind. (24) The English, in fact, had this view of themselves freeing countless Indian and Negro slaves from the clutches of the evil Spaniards. The English held some sort of fantasized idea, that the Indians and Negroes would be appreciative of them, and serve them in submissive harmony. The English clearly at this point in history sought to create an English colony branded by a new kind of freedom. Upon achieving a colony in the New World, in 1586, the Colonists faced an immediate danger of starvation. The means of defeating this danger was the dependency on the natives.

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However the English, depending on the Indians for food, also were the same people that would burn down the native supply of corn, and would kill so many of their people. To fight and kill those that you depended on for survival, was a stupid idea for the English, and was in fact basically suicidal. This, however, did not stop the English who saw themselves as superior to the Indians. These Indians were supposed to have seen the English weaponry, technology, clothing government, and religion and realize English superiority.

The truth is in fact that, “The Indians keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor then you did… ”(90) This simple fact enraged the English and thus the English “… killed the Indians, tortured them, burned their villages, burned their cornfields. It proved superiority in spite of your failures” (90). The continued proving of superiority towards the Indians caused a certain hatred and fear towards them as well. It was at this point that fear, created a type of racism, would eventually be target at the Negroes.

It was in 1629 that the tobacco boom then began. The colonists who had come to the New World had found their get rich export. This new development in Virginian agriculture created frenzy for labor and land. The major problem with this new investment was that “They still would not grow enough corn to feed themselves, but they grew tobacco as though their lives depended on it” (109). The main connection between Virginian slavery and the tobacco boom is that, tobacco was the initial start of slavery. Though at the time not exact slavery, the poor and new arriving colonists were forced into the role of servants.

These servants would have to work a required amount of years before they would be released as freemen. By reducing “… other Virginians to a condition which, while short of slavery, was also some distance from the freedom that Englishmen liked to consider as their birthright” (123), many colonists were able to become extremely wealthy. The main problem with this servant system in Virginia was that most men, after receiving freedom, could not make it in the colony and would be forced back to being a servant.

The role of servants was not something new to the Englishman, but the laws for servants in England gave the servants much more freedom; the servants of Virginia were at a loss of human rights. One of the things that really shaped the way that Virginia is today was the high death rate. It was not only tobacco that made men wealthy either. In Virginia whenever someone died, if that person was married they would inherit all of their former partners land and belongings. Many times this would be the man that would die, and would leave a wealthy widow in his place.

Men in Virginia sought these widows like pure gold themselves; if they married these women then they would inherit all that they had acquired from their previous husbands. Therefore any man could become wealthy by just marrying a wealthy widow. Morgan states that the Virginian society was on its way to becoming,” an economic matriarchy, or rather a widowarchy” (166). For many men however it was very slim that they would be able to marry due to their current roles as servants. Even when given freedom these men were ot able to settle into a home or piece of land due to the harsh conditions they would have to try and live in after. At the same time the wealthy men were able to marry rich women, live life to the fullest, and milk the government policies for all the money that it was worth. It was later in 1663 that Virginia had seen a massive increase in freedmen. The rich masters feared that this increase would cut their own profits; therefore they “began to alter their society in ways that curtailed and threatened the independence of the small freeman and worsened the lot of the servant” (216).

They increased the servitude of servants as much as they could; increased the years of servitude even more if you were caught running away; increased the years if you were caught in forbidden pleasures; and increased the penalty for killing a hog to 1,000 lbs of tobacco or a years’ service to the owner or the informer (217). At the end of a servant’s time with a master, the master was required to “furnish a servant at the end of his term with freedom dues of three barrels of corn and a suit of clothes.

But as time drew near, it was tempting to both parties to strike a bargain in which the servant gave up his freedom dues in return for an early release” (223). This was in the masters’ favor because when the servant became a freedman with nothing, they quickly returned to their master or a new master, because they would not be able to find a food or a home. These servants were quickly losing all human rights to the greedy upperclassmen of Virginia, and slowly their states were transforming to a point of being enslaved to the higher class.

It was in 1675 that it had become apparent, that there was to be a civil war in Virginia. As Indian attacks became more ferocious it was obvious that the people of Virginia needed to take action. Governor Berkeley and his wealthy kinsman, Nathaniel Bacon had differing views on how to handle the Indians. Nathaniel Bacon had turned the angered people against the Indians, and they were ready to take their hatred out on them; Berkeley however would not let this happen, as Bacon wanted to kill all Indians and not just the ones responsible.

Berkeley fought against this racial hatred and denied Bacon the right to deal with this problem his way. In 1676, Bacon, using the discontent of the people, formulated a rebellion against Berkeley and the current government. Fighting against this rebellion Berkeley did two things; firstly he “denounced” Bacon, “and removed him from the council” (259); secondly he called a new election that allowed the people to address any complaints about himself and the current system. This allowed the anger of the classes to be weakened, and remove a dangerous threat.

Bacon’s rebellion did not have any effect on the social order, but the importance of the development of racial hatred by Bacon, is important for the further development towards slavery and racism that Virginia makes. Through Morgan’s analysis of slavery in Virginia, we can see that before 1660, black and white servants worked under the same oppressive conditions. They worked together, ate together, slept together, and had sexual relations with one another. Both races shared the same class that was made from poverty.

Morgan states that, “it might have been difficult to distinguish race prejudice from class prejudice” (325). The later development of slavery in Virginia after 1660 opened up a whole new way of doing things. It was a cost effective method that dealt with the labor shortage, and dealt with the white freedmen problem. It proved to have a greater productivity and they lived longer then the white servants that they used to use. These slaves would never have freedom, and thus replaced all the old problems that rich masters used to deal with.

This new transition to enslaving the poor and the blacks transitioned the racism that was previously aimed at the Indians. The new found work force of Virginians in the late 17th and early 18th century was not the same as servants though. This workforce did not want to work. Therefore they thought it was necessary to scare the slaves into work, and to threaten death upon them. Initially, although masters were in charge of slaves, they were afraid of the slaves. They feared that these mass amounts of slaves would rise up against the white man.

Therefore the white man developed the same paranoia and fear that it had had against the Indians. Morgan however does not know whether or not racism was necessary for slavery to take place. He states, “If slavery might have come to Virginia without racism it did not… and the new social order that Virginians created after they changed to slave labor was determined as much by race as by slavery” (315). Morgan states that this change was not determined by race alone, but by slavery; above all slavery served to protect society, and prevent future rebellions.

Another purpose of slavery and racism, as Morgan states, allowed men to “perceive a common identity” based on race. However his social and class distinction opened a path to segregation and racism. This new society, which was dependent on slavery, needed a dependable political theology. That is where the republican views came into place. This new found social order gave republicans an appreciation for their own freedom, and for their own class; “They saw everyday what life would be without it could be like,” through the slavery that they had imposed on the poor and the blacks (376).

Morgan states that, “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” (386). Through the republican view, “Racism had become “an essential, if unacknowledged, ingredient of the republican ideology that enabled Virginians to lead the nation” (386). This conclusion leads one to believe that this slavery was inevitable, and that was only necessary until the social order was changed by a civil war.

This book presented a very solid argument, and extensive research. It’s sources, both primary and secondary, offered lots of integration and a well use of footnoting. However, there are some points in Morgan’s book where I find myself asking, why was this information included in the footnotes? For example on page 278, on footnote 26 Morgan says, “Freemen without land had been deprived of the vote in 1670. It was restored to them by the June, 1676, assembly” (278).

This information would be something that was important in what the status quo of a freedman was; however information in chapter 6, on the prices of tobacco, makes it into the main text. I believe that Morgan could have made better use of his footnoting , and that all information that helps to prove the thesis be included in the main text, and anything that is statistical and not necessarily important in the proving of a paradoxical American freedom, be either included in the footnotes or not noted at all.

The style and form of Morgan in his writing however was quite good. In most chapters, Morgan follows a well laid out linear structure that goes from chapter to chapter. Such as in chapter 12, Morgan ends stating, “If a mutiny should be led not by a William Spring but by a Colonel Swann, who then would be able to suppress it? ”(249) Following this, he moves onto chapter 13 that focuses on the rebellion of 1676. One thing that really stood out to me that I criticize is Morgan’s chapter on, “The Trouble with Tobacco. This chapter comes three chapters later after the chapter on tobacco boom. The chapters in between the tobacco boom and the tobacco troubles, “Settling Down” and “Living with Death,” seem quite disconnected from the linear train of information. I can however understand the connection of the troubles of death and with tobacco, but overall I fail to see the connection. Also this chapter seems to have disconnected from the main thesis and argument of this book.

I believe that the information on how troublesome tobacco could be is irrelevant to the main topic. Especially when this fact did not change the course of Virginia; Virginians continued to grow a lot of tobacco for some time afterwards, until some farmers switched to sugar cane or cotton. This books main argument is, “republican freedom came to be supported, at least in large part, by its opposite, slavery, is the subject of this book” (p. x). This argument is well laid out, and is definitely well backed.

After reading this book, I see it almost impossible for America to have thrived and grown as fast as it did, if slavery had not occurred. Morgan’s argument however is not perfect. Morgan states that, “Today the racism of many poor and lower-class American whites is so notorious that we tend to think of it as natural” (327). This statement in itself would have been the main cause of my disbelief, and the only cause of me questioning the legibility of Morgan’s evidence. You cannot be racist to poor and lower-class people, for they are not a race.

You can segregate, distinguish and judge them on those qualities, but in a book on American slavery and the paradoxical freedom caused by racism, you need to know what racism is yourself. I enjoyed reading this book, and it has enlarged my knowledge on the development of American slavery. I had never truly realized how paradoxical and contradictory that old idea of American freedom was, until I read this book. Definitely a must read for all historians studying American history. Bibliography Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.

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