Friday, February 26, 2016

Marriage of Slavery & Freedom in Virginia

Review by Bill Doughty

"The rise of liberty and equality in America had been accompanied by the rise of slavery" – "the central paradox of American history."

That's the premise of Edmund S. Morgan's "American Slavery, American Freedom" (W. W. Norton & Company, 1975; 2003), winner of the Francis Parkman Prize.

It's a good read for African American History Month, showing how the roots of slavery (and ultimately freedom) took hold in North America.

Morgan presents the early history of the heart of a new nation – what would become the United States: Virginia and it's "flawed vision." He begins with the exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh and the crossroads of English and Spanish imperialism, tobacco trade, piracy at sea, and ultimately enslavement of people of African ancestry in the name of business and profit.
"The connection between American slavery and freedom is evident at many levels if we care to see it. Think, for a moment, of the traditional American insistence of freedom of the seas. 'Free ships make free goods' was the cardinal doctrine of American foreign policy in the revolutionary era. But the goods for which the United States demanded freedom were produced in very large measure by slave labor. The irony is more than semantic. American reliance on slave labor must be viewed in the context of the American struggle for a separate and equal station among the nations of the earth. At the time the colonists announced their claim to that station they had neither the arms nor the ships to make the claim good. They desperately needed the assistance of other countries, especially France, and their single most valuable product with which to purchase assistance was tobacco, produced mainly by slave labor. So largely did tobacco figure in American foreign relations that one historian has referred to the activities of France in supporting the Americans as 'King Tobacco Diplomacy,' a reminder that the position of the United States in the world depended not only in 1776 but during the span of a long lifetime thereafter on slave labor. To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor."
The key to the paradox is Virginia, according to the author and his well-documented sources.
"Virginia was the largest of the new United States, in territory, in population, in influence – and in slaveholding. Virginians owned more than 40 percent of all the slaves in the new nation. It was Virginia slaves who grew most of the tobacco that helped buy American independence. And Virginia furnished the country's most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality. Virginia adopted the first state constitution with a bill of rights. A Virginian commanded the Continental Army that won independence. Virginians drafted not only the Declaration of Independence but also the United States Constitution of 1787 and the first ten amendments to it. And Americans elected Virginians to the presidency of the United States under the Constitution for thirty two out of the first thirty-six years of its existence. They were all slaveholders. If it is possible to understand the American paradox, the marriage of slavery and freedom, Virginia is surely the place to begin."
A Navy test pilot in a tobacco ad circa 1940.
One cannot miss another irony: southern landowners quickly became addicted to the need for slave labor to grow tobacco, a substance that also enslaved individuals with addiction.

The roots of the tobacco industry took hold in the 1600s, creating dependency on related businesses to support Virginia growers. "Shipwrights built small vessels and repaired ships that came from abroad to collect tobacco; coopers made the hogsheads (barrels) in which tobacco was packed for shipment; and carpenters built tobacco sheds and houses for the expanding population."

Morgan's account is of a different world, one in which racism, imperialism and religious intolerance justified the destruction of indigenous people in Africa and North, South and Central America. A new vision would move away from the "Virginia barons" toward true democracy and freedom. Today, it's hard to imagine enslavement of people for profit on American soil.

Morgan shows how revolutionary ideals of founders and framers would eventually bring down the institution of slavery and begin America's confrontation with the legacy of racism and slavery.

Some of our key founders, all from Virginia.
Among the author's hundreds of sources is naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison's "The European Discovery of America: The northern voyages, A.D. 500-1600" (Oxford University Press, 1971). 

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