The textbook narrative goes something like this: Roanoke disappeared. Weird, right? But then John Smith comes along and sets up Virginia. The first white Virginians, as good Englishmen, construct a tavern before they get around to a church. Then they commence dying in the swamps. The Indians come in as a footnote, usually just to name them and mention Pocahontas. They don’t really appear as rational actors who might have chosen to permit English settlement as a hedge against Spanish expansion, as such calculations implicitly belong to white people alone, and one doesn’t hear much about how the Englishmen depended on them nigh absolutely for food. That part of the story belongs up in Massachusetts. You might hear how the Englishmen spent much of their time hunting for gold rather than growing corn. Then tobacco came around and everyone skipped happily into the future. A Dutch ship brought some slaves, but let’s not dwell on that. The Middle Passage comes under a separate heading and usually deals with slavery in a matter of fact manner, with the standard picture of a slave ship’s hold and some vague gestures toward all the death.
This narrative tells us where the slaves came from. It might not go into the detail one wants, but you can only ask so much of a textbook. A good teacher can add more. Many do. But this still leaves us with an important lacuna in the account. A list of colonies that practiced slavery at the time of the revolution would include all of them. Yet those colonies, and later states, did not all practice slavery to the same degree. If all had slaves, not all organized their entire economy and society around it. In the standard demarcation, some colonies and then states had slaves. Others had slave societies. Slavery as a specific economic practice came in with the slaves. To develop a slave society one must necessarily have slaves, but enslavement alone doesn’t suffice.
When the Dutch landed their slaves in Virginia, they consequently did not bring with them a social system that took Jamestown by storm. The Englishmen came from a land that had not practice slavery for centuries. While no innocents, they lacked the built-in cultural machinery to at once turn from Englishmen of the early seventeenth century into Virginians of the middle nineteenth. That transformation deserves more attention. My curiosity about it, and the connection between slavery and American ideas of freedom, led me to Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom.
Morgan makes a compelling argument. He paints colonial Virginia as a place with land in abundance and a perpetual shortage of labor. Without labor, one could not grow the tobacco that made some Virginians rich. Contemporary England had the opposite labor situation: too many laborers who ended up wandering the country looking for ways to get ahead. The obvious solution to Virginia’s labor woes came thus from closer to home than Africa’s shores. Many Englishmen, and rather fewer Englishwomen, willingly signed indentures pledging their service for a term of years in exchange for their transport to the new world. Others signed less willingly. All doubtless felt the press of circumstance. They came as unfree labor, but not quite as slaves.
This did not stop the better off Virginians from exploiting them ruthlessly. They could and did beat their indentured servants. While people did vary, an indentured servant could expect a hard life. Their owners could beat them, bilk them out of their dues, and add time to their contracts for real or specious reasons, but eventually an indentured servant who didn’t feed Virginia’s ravenous appetite for European lives would turn free. Thus Virginia, from the perspective of well-off English Virginians, had partially solved England’s labor surplus problem by importing the same problem for themselves.
Contrary to the impression one might have from reading about early Virginia, its English inhabitants proved themselves a particularly industrious people. They needed only find the right work to turn themselves conspicuously productive. When confronted with the risk of competition from their white freedmen, they didn’t shrink, make excuses, or find the toil beneath them. Quite the opposite, the colony’s elites kept the lower orders from turning into peers
by creating an artificial scarcity of land, which drove freemen back into servitude; by extending terms of service; by inflicting severe penalties for killing the hogs that offered easy food without work. They had also through rents and taxes and fees skimmed off as much as they dared of the small man’s small profits for the benefit of burgesses, councillors, and collectors.
Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6228-6231). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
The lower classes, not appreciating the great exertions undertaken for their sake, seethed with resentment that threatened rebellion. The elites in turn developed a morbid fear of servile insurrection, this time against white servants, which sounds a great deal like that of their descendants. This legitimated systems of control already present, pushing laboring in the Virginia tobacco fields
Men served longer, were subjected to more rigorous punishments, were traded about as commodities already in the 1620s.
Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Location 6243). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
The rebellion would eventually come in a very big way, plunging Virginia into a civil war a century before the Revolution. But that remained ahead of Virginia for the time. We might ask why the Virginians, already possessed of a pipeline of white labor to meet their needs, did not simply solve the problems with indentured servitude by converting it into proper slavery. Though not the products of a slave society, they knew about slavery well enough. They knew it as the means Spain used to mine New World gold and silver. They knew it as a thing inflicted upon them, and other Europeans, by Barbary pirates. As late as the 1850s, proslavery theorists considered the merits of enslaving poor whites alongside blacks. Surely with racial categories not nearly so firm in the seventeenth century, and to the degree they had firmed up more concerned with the exclusion of Indians from the moral community, that solution would have occurred to someone.
Morgan suggests that the Virginians already had too many unhappy indentured servants and marginalized freedmen for such an experiment. What they did do fueled the largest rebellion in North America prior to the 1770s, Bacon’s Rebellion. The labor force on hand rose up against a regime that, while undeniably harsh, fell still short of enslavement. They might have done worse, and sooner, if the Virginia planters dared try. Furthermore, any such plan would have to proceed slowly so as to avoid an immediate revolt and would likely end the flow of labor from Europe. You could plausibly lie and tell a person signing an indenture that he or she would do well in the end, but few sign up for slavery under any circumstances. Even if one could manage all of that, instituting slavery would surely invite the government in London to intervene in the interests of preserving its tobacco-taxing enterprise against a feared exodus from the colony.
All of this raises another question. Why, if indentures presented so much difficulty, did the colony persist with them for so long? The colony could dodge any issue with transition to slavery by simply buying the already enslaved. Some already lived among them. Why not more and sooner?
The answer lies in the fact that slave labor, in spite of its seeming superiority, was actually not as advantageous as indentured labor during the first half of the century. Because of the high mortality among immigrants to Virginia, there could be no great advantage in owning a man for a lifetime rather than a period of years, especially since a slave cost roughly twice as much as an indentured servant.
Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6263-6266). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
A slave cost more upfront, and might die anyway. An indentured laborer cost less and if he or she died, then the planter might well come out ahead as the dead collect no freedom dues and rarely see fit to compete with the living. With the odds in favor of death likely better than even, a slave seems the poorer investment. Certainly a dearth of available slaves didn’t keep the system from taking root. The Dutch delivered their first in 1619. They continued to provide enslaved people to the British West Indies and they came to Virginia to buy tobacco anyway. A supply and a route to bring the demanded lives to their buyers already existed. Indeed, if any essential Englishness conspired against the wholesale adoption of slavery, then we must conclude that the Barbadians tobacco and later sugar magnates of the same era misplaced their nationality somewhere in the Atlantic.
Morgan suggests that Virginia began its transition in part thanks to the supply of indentured servants drying up. Bacon’s Rebellion, on top of Virginia’s already deadly reputation, can’t have helped. A colony amid people imagined as savage, across the sea, already appealed largely to the desperate. A colony with all of that, where Englishmen warred with one another must have seemed still less promising. More pressingly, things seem to have improved back home. However, Morgan doesn’t think this the decisive issue. Rather he points to Virginia finally consuming enough English lives to go on a diet. With servants living longer and dying before the end of their term less frequently, the economics changed.
The point at which it became more advantageous for Virginians to buy slaves was probably reached by 1660. In that year the assembly offered exemption from local duties to Dutch ships bringing Negroes.
Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6294-6295). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
That suggests that the colony’s government understood slavery as the future. One exempts from taxation those practices one wishes to encourage, not those one abjures or greets with indifference. But then Parliament stuck its nose in and forbade trading with the Dutch. A century later, aggrieved Americans would list such Navigation Acts as among the reasons that justified their rebellion. In the short term, Morgan reasons that the law slowed the change to slavery. Certainly the planters, both in the West Indies and Virginia, complained that it kept from them the slaves they needed.
The Indies and Virginia soon found themselves in stiff competition for the slaves that did come. Barbados, Jamaica, and the other British possessions could promise greater profits and have its slaves for less, thanks to its proximity to Africa, than Virginia. Most of the slaves consequently went their way. However, the profits from sugar declined and the tobacco planters realized a different advantage: their slaves lived longer. Morgan has the numbers:
The slaves on Barbados plantations had to be replaced at the rate of about 6 percent a year. 18 It is estimated that between 1640 and 1700 264,000 slaves were imported into the British West Indies. The total black population in 1700 was about 100,000.19 In the next century, between 1712 and 1762 the importation of 150,000 slaves increased the Barbados black population by only 28,000.20 By contrast, while Virginia imported roughly 45,000 slaves between 1700 and 1750 (figures from the seventeenth century are sporadic), the black population increased from perhaps 8,000 or 10,000 to over 100,000.21 In Virginia not only had the rate of mortality from disease gone down, but the less strenuous work of cultivating tobacco, as opposed to sugar, enabled slaves to retain their health and multiply. To make a profit, sugar planters worked their slaves to death; tobacco planters did not have to.
Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 6317-6325). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
With the price of sugar going down and that of tobacco largely stable in the last half of the seventeenth century, economics pointed not only to Virginians investing in slavery on their own, but also more slaves coming their way. Aside from tobacco, Virginians could also by this point feed themselves. It made more economic sense in Barbados to import food than to surrender valuable sugar land to its cultivation, much of which would come from Virginia. For a brief period, the ships turning up in Barbados to feed the island even returned to Virginia with Barbadian slaves in their holds. White Barbadians, hedged out by the island’s development, found their way to Virginia and, later, founded South Carolina.
Historians might argue forever over just when Virginia turned from a society with slaves into a slave society. As with any process, one can make reasonable arguments for any point as the decisive one. I know that subsequent scholars have added nuances and qualifications to Morgan’s thesis. But as a whole it seems to hold together quite well for an argument forty years old. Once the process of conversion began, nothing could do much more than delay it.
It doesn’t follow, of course, that this means we should just shrug it all off as something that no one could help. People responding to economic incentives make choices just as much as those responding to political incentives. If we understand them as making conscious choices in who they vote for, then we should do the same and give them the credit, and kind of credit, they deserve for arranging their labor system. People, not blind pitiless laws of physics, chose slavery. That they did it in response to economics does not diminish that choice. They looked at their world with the same faculties, if not all the same knowledge, as we do. They used their minds and reasoned their ways to a solution just as we might. If they had some enlightened feelings that they set aside in the face of “necessity” or a businessman’s practicality, then I don’t think it necessary point to the many of the ways we do the same. These things don’t just happen; people make them happen, even if they pretend otherwise now and again.
These calculations bore fruit, decades after the colony transformed itself from the home of incidental, if still suffering, slaves into a slaveholding civilization, in a Virginia where
George Washington […] grieved that “the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood, or inhabited by Slaves.” It was, he thought, a sad alternative. But, he asked, “Can a virtuous Man hesitate in his choice?” Washington led his countrymen in arms, while another Virginian led them in a Declaration of Independence that founded the American republic. The starting point of that document, the premise on which it rested, was that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At the time when Thomas Jefferson wrote those words, he was personally depriving nearly two hundred men, women, and children of their liberty. When he died, on the fiftieth anniversary of his great Declaration, he still owned slaves, probably more than two hundred. When Washington faced his sad alternative, the happy and peaceful plains of Virginia had been inhabited by slaves for more than a century, and 135 of them belonged to him. When he died, he was master of 277.
Morgan, Edmund S. (2003-10-17). American Slavery, American Freedom (Kindle Locations 120-128). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.