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American Slavery, American Freedom Reissue Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393324945
ISBN-10: 039332494X
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Thoughtful, suggestive and highly readable."

Profoundly important.... Every page of Morgan's book speaks of a sensitive understanding of human nature, as well as of a scrupulous attention to scholarly exactitude. --J.H. Plumb"

About the Author

Edmund S. Morgan (1916–2013) was the Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University and the recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the Pulitzer Prize, and the American Academy’s Gold Medal. The author of The Genuine Article; American Slavery, American Freedom; Benjamin Franklin; and American Heroes, among many others.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition (October 17, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039332494X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393324945
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #126,363 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This is an excellent, in depth survey of Virginia�s colonial experience, with an emphasis on how the seemingly contradictory institutions of slavery and equalitarian republicanism developed simultaneously. Indeed, Morgan argues that Virginians� definition of freedom, and their very ability to establish a republican political system, rested upon the creation of African slavery. Morgan shows that institutionalized slavery did not necessarily have to become part of British colonization; the earliest Englishmen to dream of a colonial empire hoped for the establishment of a utopian community in which natives could benefit from enlightened English governance that recognized the inherent rights of all men. Early English explorers even helped to organize revolts against the Spanish by their slaves in Latin America, and while they were motivated by their own interests in doing so, they clearly were willing to treat their slave co-conspirators as equals. However, the utopian phase of colonization died with the failed settlement at Roanoke in the 1580s. The founders of Jamestown quickly learned racism towards the Indians, whom Morgan speculates they goaded into warfare out of frustration at their own inability to support themselves.
The settlement eventually became prosperous as the colonists learned to produce tobacco for market, but it was hardly the ideal society envisioned by the founders. Labor shortages were endemic, as to make a profit planters needed to control a large number of indentured servants. Unfortunately (for the planters), laborers needed only to serve for a limited period before setting up business for themselves, and thus creating competition for the planters.
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Format: Paperback
There is, Edmund Morgan observes in American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, a contradiction at the heart of the American Revolution: the greatest champions of liberty in 1776 were, themselves, slave owners. However, far from finding a contradiction in the paradox, Morgan sees the institution of slavery as an essential precondition for Virginians' ultimate embrace of revolutionary republican ideology. "To a large degree," he writes, "it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor." (5)

Morgan locates the origins of this paradox in the economic development of the Virginia colony in the 17th century. Although the colony was originally supposed to be self-supporting, and capable of producing a wide range of crops and products for export to Britain, the introduction of tobacco cultivation a decade after its founding determined the evolution of the colonial economy. A highly prized commodity, tobacco provided the colonists with a stable economic foundation, despite the initial resistance of the Crown, and would soon become their dominant cash crop.

However, tobacco cultivation required considerable manpower, and the leading men of the colony - who were, after all, according to Morgan, disinclined to hard labour themselves - solved the problem through the importation of large numbers of indentured servants. "Most workers were either tenants or servants bound for a period of years," Morgan writes. "Servants were what the planters most wanted." (106)

According to Morgan, coerced labour, initially in the form of indentured servitude, was a necessary precondition for Virginia's tobacco economy. However, by the middle of the 17th century, the system had run headlong into two problems.
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Format: Paperback
I first read this book in graduate school over fifteen years ago. That it is still in print is testimony to both the content and the author's skillful ability to convey his message. When asked to pick three favorite historians, I included Edmund S. Morgan on my list. He states his points clearly and succinctly and his books are very readible for people of varied acedemic backgrounds. one does not need to be a scholar to appreciate his works.

In American Slavery, American Freedom, Morgan traces the interconnectivity of those who drafted our founding documents and the slavery they all accepted and participated in. Because they owned slaves, they had the opportunity to spend their time forging our "free" society. Obviously there is a paradox here, and this is the main focus of Morgan's work.

This book will be of interest to any who enjoy studying American history in general, the colonial period, black history, revolutionary America and so forth. This book ought to remain in print for years to come and it is worth the time for any interested in the period or the topic.
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"Racism became an essential, if unacknowledged, ingredient of the republican ideology that enabled Virginians to lead the nation." writes Edmund S. Morgan in 1975, and ends this book with the rhetorical question: "Is America still colonial Virginia writ large?"
These are deeply disturbing questions - questions one is compelled to ponder as one reads this lucid and dispassionate presentation of the how primitive accumulation in Virginia at the beginning of the 17th century was replaced a century later by an orderly and opulent society based on slavery. The answer to such questions is not made easy by the realisation that the only other successful republican experiment - the Athenian democracy - blossomed too on a bed of slavery.
Do these questions matter today? Have we not moved on from racism? I'm afraid not. Again the voice of Morgan: "In the republican way of thinking, zeal for liberty and equality could go hand in hand with contempt for the poor and plans for enslaving them." Sounds eerily familiar? Just as today's language used to describe terrorist threats is redolent of the rhetoric that once surrounded the lynching of black bodies. Racism (albeit globalised) is re-visiting the land today, and so are republican virtues and values.
The book is long, and in some ways, too detailed. Morgan delights in the telling particular, and at times one wishes he would not linger on some specifics. But this has a purpose. He wants to show the imperceptible and surreptitious mechanisms by which a society acquires its ugly and immoral traits until they become so natural as to be invisible. Step by step, event by event, law by law a construction emerges that would have horrified its founders. Yet, at the time, it seamed the logical, and the right thing to do.
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