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Liberty and Slavery: the Anomaly of Colonial Virginia

ISSUE:  Spring 1976
American Slavery—American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. By Edmund S. Morgan. W. W. Norton. $11.95.

WHY did such founding fathers as Jefferson, Mason, and Henry, who were outspoken in their denunciation of slavery, nevertheless own hundreds of slaves? Were they hypocrites, or was there some relatively valid reason for the obvious conflict between their words and their deeds?

Dr. Samuel Johnson noted this strange phenomenon, “How is it,” said he, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Patrick Henry was one of those Virginians who were decidedly uncomfortable because of the position in which they found themselves. Sincerely “fond of liberty” and also genuinely religious, Henry had difficulty reconciling himself to the fact that he and many of his contemporaries were nevertheless slaveowners and asked: “Would anyone believe that I am the master of slaves by my own purchase?”

Edmund S. Morgan has attacked this problem in an able and deeply researched book which provides new insights into conditions prevailing in Colonial Virginia. American Slavery—American Freedom is a valuable analysis of the relations between the various classes in the Old Dominion from the time of the Jamestown settlement to the American Revolution.

Morgan chose Virginia because of its leadership role in the Revolution and the founding of the republic and also because the great and freedom-loving Virginians of that era were all slaveholders. This strange anomaly existed in the other colonies, of course, including those in New England, although slavery was soon seen to be uneconomic for cold climes and family-size farms. It flourished only where such warm-weather crops as tobacco, cotton, sugar, rice, and indigo could be raised on large plantations.

Types of labor on the earliest Virginia farms, both large and small, are traced by Morgan. He describes the kinds of immigrants who came over from England, the conditions under which they lived and worked in the mother country, and their status in the new land. He provides us with a social and economic history of colonial Virginia and presents fascinating material that other historians have overlooked.

The stupidities of the early colonists in failing to plant sufficient corn and other necessary garden products are vividly described. Morgan rightly wonders how the first Jamestown settlers and their successors could have been so lazy, shortsighted, and improvident. He notes that whereas the Statute of Artificers in England required laborers to work from five in the morning until seven or eight at night from mid-March to mid-September and from daybreak to nightfall during the remaining months, with not more than two and a half hours for eating, drinking, and rest, the work schedule at Jamestown was far less rigorous. Although the colony was not infrequently on the verge of starvation, or actually starving, the rules in 1610 required labor from six to ten a. m. only, and from two to four p. m. When tough Sir Thomas Dale took over in the following year, penalties for many types of transgressions were almost incredibly harsh, but the work schedule was remarkably lenient. It was “roughly five to eight hours a day in summer and three to six hours in winter.” And, of course, there were the numerous “gentlemen,” who were not expected to do any work at all.

As time passed, the more enterprising settlers managed to acquire large estates. The devious methods by which many of them did so are unsparingly described by Morgan. Wertenbaker and others have stressed these polite thieveries, but nowhere have I seen them portrayed with such devastatingly sardonic irony as in the present volume. Morgan is at his best here.

He also is searing in his account of the colonists’ treacheries in dealing with the Indians. The latter were certainly not without cruelty and guile, but the Jamestown settlers and those who came after them seem to have fixed the pattern for the almost interminable series of broken treaties and violated agreements that, down the years, have blackened the white ma’n’s record in his relations with the redskins.

Morgan shares the view of most modern authorities that Captain John Smith’s account of his rescue from death by young Pocahontas is probably correct. In the matter of Bacon vs. Berkeley he leans toward Bacon. At least, he is trenchant in his criticism of “vindictive old Governor Berkeley,” especially the Governor’s blind rage and prehensile propensities after Bacon’s Rebellion was put down.

Anglican clergymen of Virginia’s colonial era are given short shrift by Morgan, who says there was “a high proportion of misfits, drunkards, and libertines.” It is difficult to prove the contrary beyond the peradventure of a doubt, but Richard L. Morton provides strong evidence. He counters Episcopal Bishop William Meade’s blistering criticisms, made long after the colonial period, with the findings of Bruce, Brydon, and others. (See The Present State of Virginia, edited by Morton; footnote 272, p. 254.)

The principal thesis of American Slavery—American Freedom is that the paradox of chattel servitude thriving in a state dedicated to freedom can be explained in large measure by the type of labor system that was developed there in the colonial era. In the first decades after Jamestown, white indentured servants were brought over in large numbers, and “were sold upp and down like horses,” with the result that Virginians were “beginning to move toward a system of labor that treated men as things.”

In further elaboration of this thesis, Morgan states that “as the number of poor white Virginians diminished, the vicious traits of character attributed by Englishmen to their poor could in Virginia increasingly appear to be the exclusive heritage of blacks.” The latter were regarded by the English colonials as “ungrateful, irresponsible, lazy and dishonest.” And the author goes on:

“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.”

The foregoing brief summary does not do justice to Morgan’s thesis, which is developed at much greater length, but it does, I believe, give the general trend of his thinking.

His use of the term “racism” in a discussion of attitudes in colonial Virginia impresses this reviewer as an anachronism and out of place, since the term is a modern one and is not to be found in the 1926 edition of Webster’s Unabridged. But that is a relatively minor matter. More important, it would seem, is the fact that there appears to be a better explanation than the one Morgan advances for the ownership of slaves by Virginia’s greatest advocates of liberty. This is to be found in the fact that there was no practical way to abolish slavery without setting free tens of thousands of jobless, unlettered blacks. And how were the owners of these blacks to be compensated for the valuable property of which they would thus be deprived?

Jefferson, Henry, Mason, and the rest recognized that slavery had no place in a free society and said so openly and often. St. George Tucker suggested an elaborate plan for emanicipation in 1796 (not 1786, as stated by Morgan), But his proposal, had it been adopted, “would have transformed their slavery into a kind of serfdom,” Morgan concedes, “under which they would still be compelled to labor, lest they become “idle, dissipated, and finally a numerous banditti. “”

The foregoing illustrates the enormous difficulties that faced those who offered any sort of plan for freeing the bondsmen. Those difficulties were analyzed with great forth-rightness by the members of the Virginia General Assembly at the session of 1831—1832, immediately following the bloody Nat Turner insurrection in Southampton County, Yet the best that they could devise was a modest plan for sending to Africa slaves who had already been freed, and even that was defeated. Funds were finally appropriated in 1850 to further this emigration, but scarcely anything came of it.

All of which would seem to buttress the argument that the basic reason for the existence of a system of chattel servitude in Virginia, as well as in other states, was the almost insuperable problem of finding a suitable role for huge numbers of liberated blacks and for compensating their owners. Morgan has provided us with an ingenious explanation, and one which undoubtedly has some bearing, but which does not appear to have been controlling. However, his well-written and ably-researched book possesses much merit and provides us with a vivid picture of the period.


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