American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. By Edmund S. Morgan.
New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1975. x, 454 pp. $11.95.
For the past quarter century Edmund S. Morgan has been one of the most prolific
and respected authors of early American history. Noted for its incisiveness, as
well as its graceful crafting, his work on the New England Puritans and the
American Revolution has set high standards as a model of careful investigation
and sensitive reading of the historical record. For these reasons, any addition to
the corpus of Morgan's scholarship immediately commands his colleagues' attention.
But American Slavery, American Freedom is attractive in its own right
because it is one of the first book-length studies to emerge from the current
reexamination of Virginia's colonial history. Furthermore, Morgan's assessment
of the Old Dominion's first two centuries is destined to spark controversy among
specialists in Southern history and slavery.
To Morgan the simultaneous rise of slavery and freedom is the most cruel
paradox of American history. Americans revolted in 1776 to escape what some
perceived as the tyrannies of Englishmen, but even as the revolutionaries boldly
professed themselves votaries of liberty and equality, they perpetuated a labor
system more oppressive in its exploitation of men than any act of the British
government. For nearly a century after independence the unholy alliance between
freedom and slavery persisted, and of course the consequences of that marriage
are felt even now. The task Morgan sets for himself is to tell how such a paradox
came to pass.
The starting point for such an explanation, Morgan asserts, is the Old Dominion.
American Slavery, American Freedom may be read "as a history of early Virginia,
but it is intended to be more and less than that. It is the story of how one
set of Americans arrived at the American paradox, an attempt to see how slavery
and freedom made their way to England's first American colony and grew there,
together the one supporting the other" (p. 6). Any evaluation of the book must
therefore rest upon one's judgment of how well these goals are met.
As a history of Virginia the book has its shortcomings. Superficially, it appears
to be thoroughly researched and documented. Yet there are errors and misleading
statements that tend to distract the reader. The Governor's Council was not
Virginia's only law court during the 1620s (p. 127). After 1624 there existed a
system of monthly courts that functioned until the General Assembly supplanted
it with the county courts. Lower Norfolk and Northampton are not the only
counties for which continuous records for the period before 1660 survive (p.134, note 4).
The records of both Lancaster and Northumberland counties antedate 1660,
and they exist in continuous, albeit shorter, runs. Northumberland was
formed in 1648, not 1645 (p. 149). The first William Byrd died in 1704; so he
could not have written to Sir Hans Sloane in 1706 (p. 182). Since the records of
Gloucester County are nonexistent, save for the few remnants which George and
Polly Mason published thirty years ago, it is remarkable to learn that in 1676
Gloucester was "probably the richest county in Virginia" (p. 265). It is also
curious that Morgan did not include the annual average taxes for Northumberland
during the 1660s in the table on page 346 when the data for such a computation
survive in the county order books. These and other inaccuracies are merely annoyances
that serve to remind us that even the most careful scholar is prone to err.
To some readers Morgan's history will seem unbalanced because it devotes less
space to the eighteenth century than to the seventeenth. The period after 1720 is
given short shrift, while fully two-thirds of the book is used to portray Virginia's
first one hundred years. But given the seventeenth century's significance as the
founding period, as well as its importance for Morgan's concerns, such a division
What is more questionable, however, is the depiction of Virginia that emerges
from the author's analysis of the seventeenth century. Morgan's Virginia was a
grimly frightful place. The social order was deferential, but fragile -- a fragility
engendered by the ruthlessness with which the upper classes exploited those beneath
them. Cursed with bad government, bad leaders, and high taxes, the colonists lived
in constant fear of Indians, servants, slaves, and each other. The settlers
themselves were a nasty, brutish lot who had no common sense, no malleability,
no charity, no religion, no humanity, and, except for avarice, no passion. And
yet, they seemed to possess an almost conspiratorial cunning and unanimity when
it came to labor. The ownership and exploitation of laborers were their primary
remedies for the problems that confronted an evolving society.
Assuredly, one does get a picture of the brutality of colonial life from the
extant colonial sources, but to see only that aspect is to miss much that is vital
to an understanding of how Englishmen adapted what they knew of their heritage
to a novel environment. The whole century cannot be reduced merely to a labor
problem. There is more to the development of Virginia than the question of
who should work for whom. That formulation is just too neat; it glosses over
too much, and it makes no allowance for the complexity of human behavior.
As a full history, then, American Slavery, American Freedom verges on the
Only in the last chapter does the book become what Morgan promises at the
beginning. By reading backwards from that point, one comes upon an alluring
addition to the literature of republicanism. Apart from increasing our understanding
of republicanism, Morgan raises issues of no little contemporary importance:
What are the determinants of social gradations? What is the place of
the poor in a free society? And what effect does the continued persistence of a
sizeable dependent population have in a republican body politic?
Seen in this light, Morgan's Virginia becomes the laboratory for the study of
race and class and their impact upon republican thinking. It is fair to exclude all
other variables from the experiment. But then one cannot claim to have written
the whole story. If Morgan accepts this limitation, why then all of the politics,
demography, and storytelling? There remains a basic ambiguity of purpose that
is never clarified.
Despite these criticisms, American Slavery, American Freedom is a stimulating book.
Its insights are provocative and imaginative, and therein lies the book's importance.
Warren M. Billings, University of New Orleans
Reviewed in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, v.85 no.1 (January 1977)