Sunday, April 20, 2014

Edmund Morgan on American Liberty and Slavery

In his monumental study from 1975, Edmund S. Morgan shows how the original plan of making a collaborative, bi-racial society in Virginia, in the wake of the Lost Colony in the Carolinas was thwarted from the beginning by the lack of interest of the Indians on the one side and the English on the other side.

What came about instead was a largely land-based aristocracy of tobacco farmers that consumed huge numbers of people power to establish their crops, using indentured servants. This was necessary initially, Morgan argues, because the high levels of mortality prevented the expenditure for anything but servants paying off. These servants were commanded only through the promise of eventual liberty and treated more harshly than anywhere else in either England or the colonies.

However, as the levels of mortality declined, and the number of servants that had completed their indenture began to bolster the number of poor restless males in the colony, it behoved the tobacco growers to switch from using indentured servant labor to slave labor, which was initially mostly imported from Barbados, a country the Virginians were already sending pigs and cows to. Slave labor was more expensive initially but since the investment was now viable for a longer time, and capable of self-replication, the initial expenditure was worth the effort.

As the number of slaves in Virginia grew, the relationship between the white poor and the white rich changed, a change that was reflected in the laws of the colony, leading to working out what for all intentions and purposes was the Republican ideal of independence and equality that supported Virginia's commanding role in the protest against England and in taking over the ship of state after the successful American Revolution.

Morgan wonders at least whether the fact that the State with the highest number of slaves at the moment of independence had been such a champion of Republican liberty was not due to the fact that every day they were confronted with the view of what it looked liked to have no liberty.

Among the important literature references that Morgan makes are:

Unfortunately, the voluminous diary of Landon Carter is hard to get; I have found some excerpt, such as here or here, but the multi-volume edition was only completed in the late 1960s and thus is not available via Google Books for another couple of years.

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