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86 of 92 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
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...
Published on October 1, 2001 by Sandra Parke Topolski

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12 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Indentured Servitude is not Slavery
This book is mistitled and left me very dissatisfied. I can only assume the publisher decided "American Slavery" would sell better than "The Labor Economics of Colonial Virginia". While a good and exhaustive academic review of indentured servitude and the class system of colonial Virgina, this book is only suggestive of the development of African slavery. While we see...
Published 18 months ago by Tim Scott


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86 of 92 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, October 1, 2001
By 
Sandra Parke Topolski (New Albany, Indiana United States) - See all my reviews
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. To check this competition, planters made it difficult for freedmen to buy lands of their own (land was plentiful, but acreage with access to shipping had been almost totally monopolized by the large planters), which resulted in freedmen foregoing planting, and becoming lazy, shiftless, and at times rebellious. Moreover, planters treated their indentured servants so poorly that as news of their condition drifted back to England, fewer of the mother country�s poor were willing to indenture themselves, especially as the burdens of overpopulation were being reduced at home.
By the 1670s, conditions were ripe for the importation of African slaves, as planters had accumulated capital from past harvests, the supply of indentured servants had slackened, life expectancy had increased to the point where buying a servant for life was cost efficient, and the increasingly rebellious nature of English freedmen convinced the colony�s leaders that to encourage growth in the ranks of Virginia�s poor could be disastrous. At first, African imports faced restrictions no different from those of white servants, except that their terms of service were fixed for life, and poor whites and black slaves even formed friendships, recognizing the commonality of their interests. This sense of camaraderie alarmed the colony�s leaders, who early in the 18th century sought to differentiate the interests of black and white laborers, codifying special discriminations against blacks and fostering a racist attitude towards them. Lower class whites were now allowed to rise in social and economic status, since planters needed them to think in terms of the unity of whites as a social class, rather than in terms of economic class. At the same time, the new emphasis in England upon legislative supremacy and the �rights of Englishmen� carried over to Virginia, leading planter-legislators to curry the favor of lower class voters.
Popular political participation provided the roots of republicanism, as racial slavery allowed whites across social classes to see themselves as political and social equals. Poverty was seen as a threat to republicanism, since the poor would owe their votes to their creditors and benefactors, and must therefore be kept out of the political system. Racial slavery was the perfect way to identify the poor and keep them subdued and out of politics, thus ensuring the liberty of property owners of all economic levels. Blacks took on (at least in the eyes of whites) the attributes that had always been assigned to England�s poor, and identifying those negative qualities with race only made it easier for committed republicans to justify their inequality. Thus, in Virginia, contempt for the poor became contempt for blacks, and while northerners could decry slavery, they could also accept that republicanism rested upon keeping the poor and landless down.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Contradictions at the Heart of AMerica, May 7, 2006
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This review is from: American Slavery, American Freedom (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. The first was that the economic conditions that had encouraged Englishmen to indenture themselves to the Virginia colony had eased, resulting in a reduction of the number of servants available. The second, and more serious problem, was that, with the improvement of conditions within the colony, freed servants were living long enough to form a substantial dispossessed class that threatened its stability.

While other strategies for minimizing class antagonism failed, the importation of African slaves was eminently successful. Morgan notes that "the substitution of slaves for servants gradually eased and eventually ended the threat that freedmen posed: as the annual number of imported servants dropped, so did the number of men turning free." (308)

Morgan argues that was not a "necessary ingredient of slavery," but "it was an ingredient." (315) Indeed, by creating a perpetually un-free workforce distinct from, and thus not entitled to the rights of Englishmen, Virginia was able to establish a kind of class solidarity. With former freedmen becoming small planters, and with the elimination of an exploited white workforce, the white classes of Virginia could see mutual interests. The poorer white colonists "were allowed not only to prosper, but also to acquire social, psychological, and political advantages that turned the trust of exploitation away from them and aligned them with the exploiters." (344)

With the introduction of Whig ideas to the colony following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, that alignment fostered a sense of common cause against tyranny and political equality based on slavery. Indeed, Morgan notes that "Aristocrats could more safely preach equality in a slave society than in a free one." (380)

Morgan makes a convincing case for his argument with a painstakingly detailed analysis of the economic structure of Virginian society, revealed principally in the legal and financial records of the colony. However, American Slavery, American Freedom has some curious flaws. Though Morgan devotes a fair amount of space to discussing a similar trajectory to slavery in Barbados at about the same time, he never quite explains what made the Virginia experience special. Why, after all, did Bermuda not join the American Revolution?

More serious is his failure to connect the slave-based class accommodation of the early 18th century with the apparent contradiction of Jefferson and Washington defending freedom while owning slaves. Although he begins the book with a desire to explain "the seeming inconsistency, not to say the hypocrisy, of slaveholders devoting themselves to freedom," (4) Morgan's one-page treatment of Jefferson himself never quite answers the question. While he expertly documents the foundation of the revolutionaries' ideological paradox, he fails to elucidate its content.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars American Slavery, American Freedom, April 24, 2006
By 
J. Lindner (MN United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: American Slavery, American Freedom (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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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing Questions, July 7, 2003
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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.
A strong point in Morgan's narrative is the links he highlights between the developments in Virginia and the Britain's commercial interests, migration policies, population growth and control, state revenue, and political history or thought. One can better appreciate the import of Virginia for Britain and the mother country's fixation and fascination for the North American colonies.
Brash and brutal, Virginian slavery stood openly as godmother at the foundation of the American Republic. Other aspects of slavery also contributed significantly - but as they were indirect, they remained veiled and are hardly recognised even today. New England benefited greatly from its cod trade to the Caribbean, where the product that was found to be unfit for European markets was fed to the slaves, thus freeing up land that otherwise would have been used to sustain them. When will we get a total picture of slavery's import for America's economic foundations?
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best U.S. History Book I've Ever Read, December 6, 2008
This review is from: American Slavery, American Freedom (Paperback)
Among the overexposed idealouges, you have Schweikart, on on the other hand you have Zinn. Sadly, an author like Morgan, who seems to have no agenda other than the truth, gets a little overlooked.

This book reads like a densely written novel. I couldn't put it down.

This book functions like thourough preamble to the U.S. Civil War- it gave me a level of understanding that continues to surprise me.

If you read only one book on American History, let this be the one.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important contribution to the scholarship on slavery in colonial America, June 2, 2007
This review is from: American Slavery, American Freedom (Paperback)
In an acute discussion about ordeals and conquests, American Slavery, American Freedom shapes a carefully framed narrative around how slavery and freedom grew together. This exploration by Historian Edmund Morgan illuminates the circumstances which made it possible for slavery and freedom to simultaneously exist. "It is a story," contends Morgan, "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." (6) The main theme surrounds the development of land use in the New World. Much like Anthony Parent's work Foul Means, we discover colonial Virginia as the vehicle for understanding the seemingly blatant contradiction between the parallel growth of slavery and freedom.

Concentrating on early Virginia history, the narrative, separated into four compact sections, follows a chronological path that seems to inadvertently parallel tobacco history in early America. The overarching theme, however, concentrates on the importance of labor in colonial Virginia. As noted in Parent's work, labor became the chief pillar for economic stability of the colonial oligarchy.

Discussion in the first chapters about Englishmen, who wanted to liberate Indians and 'Blacks' from the colonial `other,' mainly the Spanish colonizers, sets the foundation for an oft told tale of colonial America. The hope, we learn from Morgan, was that all parties in the New World could co-exist in peaceful harmony. This, however, was far from the reality of the time. Slavery brought social peace to Virginia, contends Morgan, and racism acted as a common bond between whites of all classes. This amalgamation against the black labor force worked to preserve order in the colonies and place the planter elite at the top of the food chain.

Combining a multitude of primary sources from Virginia and England such as court records, economic data, and especially population statistics, we learn where Parent gained the lion's share of his evidence for Foul Means. Moreover, it appears that Morgan is the original source for interpreting how servitude declined as slavery increased in the New World. He lists declining tobacco prices and taxation from the crown as the main reasons, as does Parent, for the rise of slavery in early Virginia. The emergence of racism, argues Morgan, unified all whites - both the poor and the oligarchy, and served to suppress and isolate the Africans in American society.

Bacon's rebellion, argues Morgan, was "a rebellion with abundant causes but without a cause." (269) This insurrection, however, tilted the white social class in the favor of the richer planters. "Resentment of an alien race," contends Morgan, "might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class." Thus, the lower white servant class aligned with the Virginia oligarchy who then drew exclusively from the black work force for labor requirements.

A minor point, but Morgan's chronological order and focus on one geographic region detracts ever so slightly from the premise of his work, which emphasizes "American Slavery." Is it really American slavery or is it just Virginia slavery? He does discuss Barbados and touches on its colonial history, but most of the evidence and focus centers on colonial Virginia. Also, the focus on tobacco as an economic staple makes one wonder if other agriculture products such as corn and livestock played a financial role in colonial America? We are left guessing, as very little evidence is revealed about other economic staples.

Despite the previously noted discrepancies, the work is undoubtedly an important contribution to the scholarship on slavery in colonial America. Any serious American slavery scholar needs to read this work carefully, as it provides a succinct account of how slavery emerged in nascent colonial America.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History at its best, May 23, 2007
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This comprehensive history of early Virginia persuasively argues that slavery and racism contributed to the American notions of freedom and democracy for those not enslaved. Although first published in 1975, one would never guess that just from reading it. Morgan's argument emerges from such a careful reading and analysis of primary sources that it remains as important today as it was a quarter century ago. The book also provides valuable insights into many subjects other than slavery, including economic and political relations between Virginia and England, early interactions with Native Americans, and changing colonial and British notions of labor and class. Highly recommended on any of these issues.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth the reward., April 17, 2010
By 
MissionPk (Cupertino, CA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: American Slavery, American Freedom (Paperback)
How did the Southern conception of an American form? How is that conception intertwined with slavery?

That is what Edward Morgan attempts (and succeeds) at doing in American Slavery, American Freedom. He asks a lot of the reader, though. You will need to be patient. You will need to wade through a lot of early Virginia history that seems tangential. Don't worry. It's not. The closing chapters move very fast, but really do pull everything together.

One of the best history books out there.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Good, but with Some Curious Touches, September 10, 2008
By 
G. E. Strickland Jr. (Yorba Linda, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: American Slavery, American Freedom (Paperback)
Overall, this is a very good book. I particularly enjoyed the author's deft use of irony and wry humor. It was very informative to read another discussion of the inconsistency between the Virginians' proclamation of liberty and their heavy reliance on slave labor, and on how this reliance developed. Of course, the basic point is not an original one; even in his "Outline of History", H. G. Wells, in considering the questions of freedom and slavery, comments on the "splendid comedy" of the American story.

I agree with a previous reviewer that the title may mislead a prospective reader. The book does not give a comprehensive discussion of American slavery. Rather, while the author certainly disapproves of slavery, his main interest seems to be in how it tended to release the humbler class of whites from many pressures and in how it may have provided Virginia thinkers with perspectives that increased their appreciation for liberty. Also misleading, in the paperback edition, is the use on the cover of a painting of an early trial of Whitney's cotton gin, introduced in the 1790's, well after the period covered by the author, when tobacco and corn were still the principal crops.

The author does not say so explicitly, but there is the suggestion that a republican form of government ought to be antithetical to slavery. Surely Virginia and the other American colonies are not the only contrary examples. I believe I have read that in the glory days of Athens, with its democratic impulses, perhaps half of the population was slave.

Again, this is a very informative and interesting book, but more specialized than the title indicates.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, June 24, 2008
By 
R. Albin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: American Slavery, American Freedom (Paperback)
This very well written and researched book is an effort to answer a single interesting question; why were so many of the great Founders slaveholding Virginians? To address this apparent paradox, Morgan investigates the history of colonial Virginia from its founding to the mid-18th century, reconstructing the evolution of the planter caste and their attitudes. Morgan shows that despite the intentions of the founders of the Virginia colony, its economic life rapidly became centered on production of tobacco, a crop requiring intense labor and considerable land. The demands of this form of commercially oriented staple agriculture required forms of coerced labor, initially indentured servants from Britain. Morgan shows very well how these needs interacted with English attitudes towards the poor and the desire of many in the mother country to export the apparently able-bodied poor. The result, by the mid-17th century, was rather brutal and strongly oligarchic society dominated by a planter class with a get rich quick mentality. Morgan's description of the high mortality and general brutality of life in the Virginia colony in the first half of the 17th century is unsparing and vivid. Part of the brutality of the colony was the often vicious treatment of the native peoples, whose existence was a continuous source of anxiety for the European settlers. Conflicts between Europeans and Native Americans greatly exacerbated racist attitudes. From early in the colony's history, Morgan identifies another persistent theme, that of conflict with the government in England. Morgan shows well the basic economic and political conflicts between the demands of the Crown and the planter oligarchy. After the Glorious Revolution, the Crown adopted an essentially hands off approach to governing Virginia, allowing the planter oligarchy virtually complete autonomy.
In the 17th century, however, the oligarchic nature of the colony created considerable social and political problems because of planter dominance and exploitation of poorer Europeans. This led intermittantly to considerable social unrest, including Bacon's Rebellion, the largest uprising against colonial/royal authority prior to the Revolution. Morgan argues that the adoption of African chattel slavery was not only economically advantageous as European immigration fell off but also politically advantageous because it led to a declining number of poor whites. Particularly after the Glorious Revolution, the absence of a large number of poor Europeans and the particular form of electoral politics in Virginia allowed the planter class to pursue social leadership in a kind of republican format. This form of leadership and social deference was undoubtedly enhanced by the presence of so many Africa slaves, who provided a stimulus for ethnic solidarity among white Virginians. Morgan argues that these social and political realities were reinforced by the spread of the dissident Whig republican ideologies that were common in the colonies in the 18th century.
This is brilliant piece of historical analysis. Morgan shows that the revolutionary attitudes of the planter class, exemplified by individuals such as Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Henry, et al. were the result of a specific historical process in which chattel slavery played a crucial role. Paradox resolved though the conflict between the ideals of liberty enunciated by the Founders and the reality of African chattel slavery presented a subsuquent paradox whose consequences are still with us.
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American Slavery, American Freedom
American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan (Paperback - October 17, 2003)
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