- 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 1.3 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 56 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #35,145 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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American Slavery, American Freedom Reissue Edition
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“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, New York Review of Books
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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Often as we teach our history courses our students will invariably answer the question about why people came to the colonies with the statement, "People wanted to be free." Yet, we know from the records that most people who came to Virginia were anything but free. The facts are there and have always been there proving this, yet few speak about it because it conflicts with American heritage. Morgan shattered that illusion in this book. He showed that colonial Virginia was the exact opposite of freedom and that many people in the 17th century were forced to go there. In addition he showed how thousands of people died in Virginia from various causes during the first half of the century.
He also investigated the role of class in colonial Virginia and how those in power sought to use the colonial government to retain that power for themselves and similar people. At times this ran contrary to what the English monarchs wanted in their colonies, but the upper class of Virginia managed to overcome obstacles and stay in power. Morgan did this by examining the records of the colony including the laws as they were enacted. He found that many laws were designed to help those with money at the expense of those without. He also found where the laws changed and became race conscious which he interpreted as the sign that the upper class was making a clear distinction between white and black in order to create the classic Us vs. Them division. This division would be the racist wedge used to keep poor whites of the lower class from associating with the blacks of any class and to reinforce the status of slavery on all blacks.
This book won the Francis Parkman award and is regarded as an American history classic. One of the great things about Morgan was that his writing was wonderful and academic at the same time. Notes are given to the reader on each page via footnotes and reveal the great depth of research that Morgan used to develop this topic. It is a must read even today for anyone studying the history of Virginia. It is also a wonderful example of what a history book should be in its style and literary quality. Morgan's appendix does make one wonder what would have happened had he developed a quantification theory to go with his topic. The data results would probably have reinforced his conclusion. The appendix is an early use of that type of approach and shows that Morgan's conclusion would have been validated by quantification.
All in all this book is a must read for any scholar of Virginia, colonial America, or slavery. Reading it will help the student develop a deeper contextual feeling for how colonial Virginia developed and a greater understanding as to why certain things in this country came about. The theme of racism has been existent in America for centuries and Morgan showed us exactly why that was. This book is a must have in my collection and many others for its high quality of research.
point - the title seems in the wrong order - it does eventually get to the long-hidden historical nugget: American slavery
and racism are the result of the greed and inhumanity of fewer than one percent of US. We still live with the consequences
of our flawed founding and will never fulfill our lofty promises unless we finally face those facts.
At the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607, Virginia offered vast tracts of land available to anyone willing to make the trip and who could survive their first season (or two or three) in the New World. Unlike in England where opportunities for land ownership were constrained, the fact that Virginia land was to be had for the taking made the economic equation simple - more labor = more profits. To provide this labor, England's surplus poor (of which there was an overabundance) were sent to Virginia as indentured servants for a period of four to seven years in order to work off the costs of their relocation. Once their indenture period was over, they were free.....and poor. Over time, as established interests grabbed more and more of the land, opportunities for released bondsmen decrease, essentially creating an ever-growing class of destitute (and thoroughly despised) whites who threatened the social and political stability of the colony. Racial slavery was introduced over time to stem this proliferation of poor whites, who, after having served the term of their indenture, were free to be a "blight" on the community.
These planter elites were also constantly at political war with a succession of governors appointed by the crown to manage the affairs of the colony in a manner most beneficial to the king. By enfranchising poor whites and enlisting their support for the colonial assembly, the elites were able to exercise political power over affairs of the colony in a manner most beneficial to the colonists, rich and poor alike. The result of these forces caused a major adjustment in white social strata - the role of detested poor who would only work under the threat of the lash was imposed upon enslaved blacks, and poor whites were elevated to the level of political partners with the elites. This simultaneously endowed all whites with a fierce sense of entitlement over their political rights and the prerogatives of power on the one hand, and contempt for their black slaves on the other. Liberty and equality came to be seen as inalienable birthrights while slavery was the means by which the "shiftless, lazy, indolent" poor could be transformed from burdens on society to positive (albeit brutally coerced) contributors. In other words, Virginia whites came to think of blacks with the same sense of scorn and contempt that English aristocrats held for the poor in England while, at the same time, assuming as a birthright the same sense of political entitlement enjoyed by the elite class in England. It was this, to our modern eyes, bizarre combination of egalitarian and tyrannical ideals that informed and inspired Jefferson, Washington and Madison (among others) as they participated in the formation of what would become the United States.
The implication of this history on modern political discourse is obvious. Those who today passionately cite the liberty-loving ethos of the founding fathers while simultaneously exhibiting contempt for the poor are only looking at one side of the equation. For the Virginians, slavery and liberty went hand in hand; without the one there could not have been the other. A full, rich and nuanced understanding of our heritage compels us to recognize the human inclination to despise and exploit the powerless with the same vigor and passion that we celebrate the ennobling power of freedom.
On a final note of criticism - while the book does a masterful job of making the origins of colonial racism comprehensible, it does so at the expense of "black experience" narratives. The story addresses issues of slavery only to the extent of discussing laws passed throughout the pre-revolutionary period in order to institutionalize it and the effect these laws had on the attitudes of whites towards blacks. I started the book expecting a far deeper dive in this area, and was disappointed by how little was presented concerning the evolution of slavery throughout the 17th century from a black perspective. After having read the book, I concede that this deeper dive was not strictly necessary in order for the author to prove his thesis, yet it would have been a stronger work had greater efforts in this area been made.