Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 111 / Number 3 - Review
Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660–1740.
By Anthony S. Parent, Jr. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xvi, 291 pp. $49.95 cloth; $18.95 paper.
Ten years in the making, Anthony Parent's Foul Means is a passionate account of the development of slavery and rise
of the gentry in colonial Virginia. Inspired by Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom, Parent fills the
gap between Bacon's Rebellion and the Revolutionary era by describing in detail the precise nature of the growth of
chattel slavery in late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Virginia and the corresponding development of
The story is familiar enough, although Parent's account is striking in its denunciation of the conscious rise of Virginia
leaders to power. In his view, the early settlers of the Chesapeake comprised a ruthless bunch of land-hungry parvenus,
determined to appropriate Virginia's fertile soil. The discovery of tobacco's potential for profit initiated a land rush that
worsened the already tense relations between colonists and Indians, and by the end of the seventeenth century, the
colonists had secured Indians' lands through trickery, intimidation, and outright theft.
Despite the reluctance of English and colonial officials to allow such large accretions of territory, Virginia's leading
men engaged in "a very great cheat." The result of this "landgrab" was the emergence of Virginia's great planters,
exemplified by William Byrd I and William Fitzhugh, who used a combination of office-holding, malfeasance,
bribery, and the importation of slaves and servants to secure their vast estates.
Byrd and Fitzhugh were in the forefront of a small group of planters that led the switch from a labor system
based primarily on indentured servants to one founded on slaves. Land was but one ingredient in this transformation.
Changing economic conditions in Virginia and England, fluctuations in the tobacco market, developments in the
Anglo-African slave trade, and Africans' own experience in the type of cultivation used to grow tobacco pushed
Virginia toward a slave society.
Parent covers familiar ground in his examination of the laws that led to Africans' descent into slavery. Perceptions
of differences between white- and black-skinned people led to the legal imposition of chattel slavery upon the
darker-skinned, pagan, seemingly uncivilized Africans. What is striking in Parent's account is his emphasis
on the conscious efforts of planters to ameliorate class differences through race-based legislation.
The slave society that emerged, however, proved far from stable. In Parent's account, Bacon's Rebellion
represented a beginning rather than an end of class and racial tensions. In contrast to Morgan, Parent maintains
that the development of the institution of slavery did as much to exacerbate class and racial conflict in Virginia
as it did to ameliorate social strife. Simmering class resentments, restive slaves, and an imperial metropolis
often at odds with Virginia's leaders made their power tenuous indeed.
Parent shows that Virginia's slaves, too, shaped the emerging system by continually asserting their independence
and striking out against their debased condition. In contrast to earlier studies that have downplayed incidents of
organized slave resistance in colonial Virginia, Parent provides telling evidence that African unrest and violence
were endemic in Virginia's slave society and that the great planters were always aware of the potential of slave
flight, insurrection, and violence.
They responded by developing an ideology of patriarchalism during the 1720s and 30s. In Parent's view, its
wellsprings were hierarchy, order, provincialism, pastoralism, and providence. Virginia patriarchs demanded
obedience from their black slaves and deference from the white lower orders, while asserting a provincial
vigor in contrast to a decadent metropolitan society. Combining this ideology with efforts to Christianize
their slaves, Virginia planters cemented a powerful hegemonic hold on provincial society by mid-century.
Parent asserts that this was a deliberate policy, citing William Byrd's statement that "foul Means must do,
what fair will not" (p. xvi).
Parent's account stops at 1740, but as Woody Holton's recent work on the Revolution, Forced Founders,
shows, gentry anxiety and tension did not disappear after that date. Continued class and racial tensions, along
with growing indebtedness that soured relations with metropolitan merchants, drove Virginia's leaders to
embrace a more radical solution—independence—in the 1770s. Parent's work adds to other recent studies
that illuminate a turbulent world of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia: anxious magnates, brutalized
slaves, a restless lower and middle class, and uneasy relations with the metropolis.
University of Virginia's College at Wise