George Washington and Robert Lee: Some Thoughts

George Washington and William Lee, whom he enslaved

Gentle Readers, here we go again. The President employs a lawyer, as most officeholders do, to see to his affairs. This president requires one more than most. He has chosen John Dowd. I know nothing about Dowd except for his most famous client and what this New York Times story reports. Many lawyers study history as undergraduates and the skills one picks up in law school have substantial overlap with those of historians. That doesn’t make lawyers into historians, but one would hope they help to some degree. Dowd got an email which purported to vindicate Trump’s late claims about the removal of Confederate statues and forwarded it among his circle of journalists, officials, and friends. The email claims

LEE IS NO DIFFERENT THAN WASHINGTON

Both owned slaves.

Both rebelled against the ruling government.

Both men’s battle tactics are still taught at West point.

Both saved America.

Both were great men, great Americans, and great commanders.

Neither man is any different than Napolean [sic], Shaka Zulu, Alexander the Great, Ramses II, etc.

You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there is literally no difference between the two men.

Where to start? I will pass over Lee’s and Washington’s military virtues as irrelevant. Good generalship accrues to causes infamous and praiseworthy just as easily and so says nothing about the overall worth of the people and causes involved.

Both men rebelled against the ruling government. I don’t feel a great urge to defend the American Revolution, which had at best mixed blessings for anyone who had the wrong skin color, but Washington and the rest fought for more than the simple, bloody-minded desire to preserve slavery against all hazards. Lee can claim no such thing. Nor should we endorse anyone who rebels against a ruling government, unless we endorse Lee, Washington, Lenin, Gandhi, and Hitler as essentially the same. People rebel for causes good and bad, against governments good and bad, with such regularity that smiling on the lot of them requires staggering ignorance or staggering recklessness.

The notion that Lee, who fought for four years to destroy the United States, somehow saved it barely deserves an answer. He fought against everything Washington fought for. He Lee won, the nation Washington helped build would have ended at the point of Lee’s bayonets. If fighting to destroy the United States in the name of slavery makes you a great American, only white supremacists could cheerfully claim the title and the rest of us owe it to ourselves and their victims to be the worst of Americans.

Robert E. Lee

Lee and Washington both owned people, fair enough. Neither treated those people they enslaved well, though both might flatter themselves by thinking so. Both zealously pursued runaways and ordered violent punishments for those who defied them. Both sundered families, though Washington eventually stopped. He also freed those who he enslaved of his own free will, albeit only in his last will and testament. Lee kept the slaves he had as part of his father-in-law’s estate until the last possible minute, and went to court to get that time extended. Washington, for all his numerous faults, kept more slaves at Mount Vernon than he could profitably use in order to preserve families. Lee spent his time as executor of the estate hiring slaves out in Richmond and elsewhere, so shattering family bonds, specifically to increase his profits. None of this makes Washington a good man, despite owning people. He far more than Lee ever did and did so for longer, but it surely counts as a difference.

In myth, Lee refused to bear arms against Virginia and so almost accidentally fell into the Confederacy. In reality, he chose to fight on behalf of slavery and expressed his support for the institution regardless of Virginia’s other political circumstances. Washington thought this about the Union:

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

Neither Virginia nor any other Southern state sought a constitutional amendment, or even ordinary legislation, to part from the United states. By Washington’s logic they had a duty to obey the government, whoever the president and whatever the policy toward slavery. The first president lived up to that principle through his public career. All the way back to the Revolutionary War, he complained about petty state jealousies and national impotence which left his army short of funds and supplies.

One might argue that Washington did not face the question as Lee did, poised between Virginia and Slavery on one side and the United States on the other. We can’t argue that he actually did, as no secession crisis took place in Washington’s lifetime. However, Washington Edmund Randolph that he had thought about the issue and came to a decision. Randolph later told Thomas Jefferson, who noted the fact in his papers:

the P. speaking with R. on the hypothesis of a separation of the Union into Northern and Southern said he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern

Washington might have chosen differently when the occasion came. Few of us demur from bold talk when not expected to deliver at once. But we have the evidence we have and what Washington said to Randolph matches the consistent tenor of his public life and other declared principles.

John Dowd might not know of the Randolph conversation. It took me more than the usual amount of effort to chase the quote down to a source, so I can’t fault him for that. But given the other howlers in his forward, facts clearly don’t enter into it. Like many of us, Donald Trump likes to surround himself with people he finds easy to relate to.

 

Reviewing the field: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 17

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16; full speech

Gentle Readers, we have come near to the end. Sumner begins the next section of his speech with a “review of the field over which we have passed.” His audience didn’t need it or, probably, want that review. The classical model Sumner adhered rigorously to demanded such things. But he had gone on for a long time and covered a great deal of ground. Even people reading the pamphlet or bloggers going through the whole thing piece by piece might have forgotten some points in the torrent of words.

Sumner opened by declaring that the discussion of slavery, so eagerly closed forever in the wake of the Compromise of 1850, “is tyrannical, absurd, and impotent.” The genie could not go back in the bottle and white American men demanded by their First Amendment rights to discuss any matter they liked. Even if they had no such right, slavery could exist only through legislative enactment. Since one had to pass a law to make slaves, one must debate slavery whilst debating any such law. As the Constitution presumed freedom, a special burden of justification must fall on those who would deny it.

Sumner assembled the greatest patriotic authorities to his cause, calling George Washington “an Abolitionist” surrounded by others. Churches, colleges, literature, and poetry all stood united with him against slavery. The nation’s “best voices” did the same. Nowhere in his era did the national territory hold a single slave. This history doesn’t comport well with how we understand the past, and Sumner knew then that he took some liberties. He praised the Washington who freed his slaves at death and let Ona Judge keep her freedom, not the Washington who enslaved her and pursued her. He may genuinely not have known that the Northwest Territory held then had a number of slaves and and a noisome slaveholding minority keen to keep their human property.

Then Massachusetts’ junior Senator had to explain away the Fugitive Slave Clause, which he rightly called a last minute addition. The framers didn’t think that one through and didn’t race to enact legislation to support it once they established the new government. Nor did they hang the Union on its fate. Those days came later, when the new Fugitive Slave Act arrived in 1850. Sumner damned it for usurping powers not granted to Congress, a trampling on the rights of states, and an egregious affront to civil rights. The law included no provisions for a jury trial, so slave catchers could take anyone they like. That unfortunate would lack a right to legal representation or to speak in their own defense. Their fate would come down to the ruling of a commissioner, not even a judge.

The hallowed founders warred against the greatest empire since Rome for such offenses, but even the Stamp Act did not dare to enslave those who ran afoul of it. The Fugitive Slave Act was and could only be worse, as freedom is dearer than mere property. Finally, the people at the North could see all that plain as day and refused to abide by such an imposition. In the face of such defiance to his pursuit of Ona Judge, even bold Washington had submitted.

Ona Judge and George Washington: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 15

Small programming note, Gentle Readers: Over to the side of this post, and probably a bit down, you’ll find a Goodreads panel tracking my present reading. I almost only read history these days and have fallen out of giving occasional updates about it. Michael Holt’s Whig book has sat on top of my currently reading, untouched, since November but the display should otherwise match reality. Also you’ll discover my habit of doing things on the internet under assumed names. I hearken back to the carrier anomalocaris days when no one used their real name online.

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14; full speech

We left Charles Sumner denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act as worse than the Stamp Act. He told the Senate that popular will would no more sustain this infamous law than it had the old one. The men of the North would not sit idle in the face of such tyranny, but rise up and make it a dead letter. They had done so before, as any Massachusetts man knew. If his audience might protest that the North rose for its own freedoms, not those of slaves, Sumner had another example ready: George Washington.

As longterm readers may remember, one of Martha Washington’s slaves stole herself from Philadelphia. Ona Judge made it all the way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. George wanted Ona back and wrote a letter to the Collector of the port, Joseph Whipple, asking him to get her back. It appears that Whipple wrote to Washington first with the news that Judge had arrived, but I’ve never seen that letter. It may not survive. Sumner had Washington’s answer to it, which he claimed “has never before seen the light.”

Washington opens with a testy answer to Judge’s proposed compromise for return:

I regret that the attempt you made to restore the girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little success. To enter into such a compromise, as she has suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this Moment) it would neither be politic or just, to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent, beforehand, the minds of all her fellow Servants; who by their steady adherence, are far more deserving than herself, of favor.

The Father of the Country liked the idea of gradual emancipation, but didn’t see fit to reward a slave with any promises of it. A runaway deserved punishment, not reward. But Sumner drew out a different quote. After advising Whipple to make another go of it, Washington asked that he not cause a scandal in Portsmouth:

I do not mean however, by this request, that such violent measures should be used as would excite a mob or riot, which might be the case if she has adherents, or even uneasy sensations in the minds of well disposed Citizens. rather than either of these shd happen, I would forego her services altogether; and the example also, which is of infinite more importance. The less is said before hand, and the more celerity is used in the act of Shipping her, when an opportunity presents, the better chance Mrs Washington (who is desirous of receiving her again) will have to be gratified. [Sumner’s emphasis.]

George Washington

Whipple wrote back, indicating that he understood Washington’s concerns. He ought to do nothing that would arouse Portsmouth against him, or even create those uneasy sensations. In other words, Whipple should act quietly and avoid a spectacle that might bring failure anyway. Whipple told Washington that he had no way to know just what would happen even then; he would have to feel things out as he went. The lack of a ship ready to sail for Virginia, Judge’s pending marriage to a free man, and popular sentiment all pushed against any rendition. Whipple gave it up and Ona Judge enjoyed her freedom in New Hampshire into the 1840s.

Washington gave up the quest too. He wanted Judge back, but even at the height of his powers he bowed to the popular will.  Surely no American could turn from Washington’s example, or neglect the startling fact that Americans in his time refused to do his bidding and return Ona Judge to slavery in Virginia. Even that greatest of men might err, and Sumner made it clear that Washington had, but the “Washington on earth” thought one thing and the “Washington in Heaven” another. “His death is above his life,” Sumner averred, because in his will the first President freed his slaves.

“Pseudodoxia Epidemica” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3; full speech

Charles Sumner vented his indignation at the perversion of the true meaning of the Constitution. Men had twisted its presumption of national freedom into one of national slavery, making bondage into the default state and freedom a special enactment by state legislatures. He knew that the founders meant just the opposite. Once he had a sufficient head of steam, Sumner really unloaded:

Slavery national! Sir, this is all a mistake and an absurdity, fit to take place in some new collection of Vulgar Errors, by some other Sir Thomas Browne, with the  ancient but exploded stories, that the toad has a stone in its head, and that ostriches digest iron.

Browne wrote Pseudodoxia Epidemica -Sumner skipped the Latin, for once- to debunk a wide variety of folk wisdom common in the seventeenth century with then-modern scientific reasoning. In his place we might refer someone to Snopes or, should we remember the internet epoch of the carrier anomalocaris, Usenet FAQs. Declaring his position “unanswerable”, Sumner took his stand and started arguing.

Sumner’s throat-clearing exercise took him seven pages, Gentle Readers. His argument consumes more than sixty more, under the headings of “the true relations of the National Government to Slavery” and “the true nature of the provision for the rendition of fugitives from labor.” The first concerns us more.

Like most historians of American slavery today, Sumner began his account of antislavery jurisprudence in England. In the famous Somersett case of 1772, Lord Mansfield found along lines broadly congenial to Sumner that slavery could not exist absent a positive law to institute it. In other words, it did not exist in the common law and one needed to find a specific act of a legislature to authorize owning people. Colonies could do as they liked, but if anyone wanted to hold a slave in England they must have Parliament’s go-ahead. Sumner found cases where the courts of Mississippi and Kentucky endorsed that doctrine, so no one could claim that he cherry-picked from foreign or free state law to suit his purposes.

It followed, then, that a legal presumption against slavery existed. One could not read Constitutional or legal silences as endorsing human bondage. Nor could it arise from implications or incidentally. Legislators must pass a law that clearly said, in effect “you may own these people as slaves”. Sumner read his Constitution and found no such language. Instead it spoke of establishing justice and securing the blessings of liberty. Even the language that permitted states to continue importing slaves from Africa recognized them as people, not goods. Nor did Sumner find authorization for slavery in the Declaration of Independence. He found no more evidence of such a thing in the proceedings of the Philadelphia convention, nor in ratification debates. (On the last point, Sumner appears to have only concerned himself with Massachusetts; South Carolina could tell a different story.) Even the antebellum Supreme Court, before Dred Scott, recognized slaves as people and that their status as “merchandise” arose solely from state law.

Sumner then proceeded to a flowery, patriotic oration that conscripted George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry to his cause. To them he joined the voice of the Christian Church: Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. If that didn’t do the job, then he had the universities too: Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and William and Mary. To them, Sumner added literary men, which made room to include Benjamin Franklin, quoting from his antislavery memorial to the First Congress, and double count Jefferson and John Jay.

All this, and rather more, pointed to just how obvious Sumner considered his position. He mustered every authority he could think of, some with lengthy quotations, to manufacture a vast antislavery consensus embodied in American life from its greatest luminaries and most sacred institutions, laid down on parchment in the Constitution itself:

No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Those words, Sumner applied to everyone

whether Caucasian, Indian, or African, from the President to the slave. Show me a person, no matter what his condition, or race, or color, within the national jurisdiction, and I confidently claim for him this protection.

New England and the Slave Trade to 1808

Something different today, Gentle Readers. I undertook a light research project the past few weeks, at the suggestion of one of the mods over at Reddit’s AskHistorians. African slaves did not arrive in the New World on their own. It took Africans capturing and enslaving them, moving them to ports, and then Europeans buying and transporting them across the ocean. The lion’s share of that traffic in the later decades of the Atlantic trade took place on British-flagged vessels until 1808, and thence forward under Portuguese registry. Every seafaring power got a finger in the pie at some point, the United States included. Most of the American vessels that plied the trade did not, as one might imagine, come from South Carolina. Instead, slavers hailed primarily from New England. Yankee shipwrights built their vessels, owned them, crewed them, invested in them, and profited from their voyages. Did that investment have any influence on the eventual debates over banning slave importation on January 1, 1808? I set off to find out. I also used a more conversational, casual tone than I usually do here.

 

The Short Version

It’s complicated and the context matters. The short version is “probably a little, but some and some decisive stuff back earlier.” Ok then, everyone’s satisfied so we can all go home, consume the beverages of our choice, and call it good. Or we could go deeper.

The Long Version

Right then, let’s roll the clock back to Philadelphia, 1787. It’s summer, that time of year when rich white guys sit down to fix the Articles of Confederation, good and hard. The Committee on Detail gets to work based on general things settled by the convention. Its members are John Rutledge (SC), Edmund Randolph (VA), James Wilson (PA), Nathaniel Gorham (MA), and Oliver Ellsworth (CT). That’s two New Englanders, two Southerners, and a dude from Pennsylvania. The rest of the convention takes a break while they go to work, but not before Charles Pinckney (SC) tells everybody that

“that if the Committee should fail to insert some security to the Southern States ag[ain]st an emancipation of slaves, and taxes on exports, he sh[oul]d be bound by duty to his State to vote ag[ain]st their Report.”

Waldstreicher, David. Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (p. 89). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

As if they could have forgotten.

The Committee on Detail’s report bans taxes on exports and slave imports, and by the way there’ll be no banning of those slave imports either. A few clauses down is a requirement for a two-thirds majority to pass any acts which would regulate trade, “navigation acts” in the parlance of the time. That first appears in Rutledge’s hand. Together this tilts wildly Southern: The South’s exports can’t be taxed. Its slave imports can’t be taxed. What can the South do that would get taxed? It’s either excise taxes, which had gone not so well previously, or a tax on imports that be a drain on shipping. Who did the shipping? New England, New York, and Philadelphia, mostly.

This was enough to get some pretty serious debate going. The arguments against involved much of the obvious: the Constitution they were drafting was proslavery. The 3/5 compromise would promote slave imports, since the South could literally buy votes in the House and Electoral College. If slavery weakened the South by requiring more military spending to keep it together, as the section sometimes argued, then the whole union would be on the hook. And really, we fought a revolution for freedom and now we’re going to protect slavery?

Rutledge, who chaired the Committee on Detail, gets up and argues otherwise: Hey, we’re not saying import slaves. We’re saying importing slaves shouldn’t be forbidden. Two, the South doesn’t need your dirty Yankee help protecting itself. The fact that we’re all paranoid about slave revolts and sore at how the British made off with so many of our slaves? Doesn’t count. But ultimately:

Religion & humanity had nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations. The true question at present is whether the South[er]n States shall or shall not be parties to the Union. If the Northern States consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of Slaves which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers.

Waldstreicher, David. Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (pp. 94-95). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Rutledge said what everybody knew. There was a kind of alliance between New England and the Lower South operating. Ellsworth helped prove it by calling the antislavery element out for hypocrisy. If slavery was wrong, why were they just banning the import of slaves? This from a guy from Connecticut.

The convention soon found they were at a serious impasse, so they got together another committee to work out a compromise: Yes to a tax on slave imports but it couldn’t go higher than the average of existing duties. No ban on slave imports permitted until 1800. Cool? Not cool. South Carolina moved to kick the date back to 1808. The change passed with the votes of New England, the Lower South, and Maryland.

Since New England was being so nice about the slave trade, the Carolinians flipped on the navigation act clause, which was then deleted. We end up with this, the slave trade clause:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

New England gets commerce-regulating power that it wants and the Lower South does not. The Lower South and New England team up to save the slave trade they’re both interested in.

As everything subsequent in this post flows in one way or another from those words, let’s unpack them a little. You have the usual constitutional circumlocution around slavery. The framers were sensitive to the notion that the Constitution would not explicitly sanction what they called “property in man”. This fooled no one, but the distinction would eventually become very important in antislavery constitutionalism largely thanks to the efforts of Salmon P. Chase and James G. Birney, but getting well outside the scope of the question. (Fair game for follow-ups or subsequent questions, of course.)

The key parts:

  1. Congress will have the power, come 1808, to impose a total ban on the importation of slaves to the United States.
  2. Congress does not have that power until 1808, though it may impose a tax of up to ten dollars a head on such imports. Congress could literally make that the first act of the first Congress, pass it on the first day, and have it be the first thing to cross George Washington’s desk.
  3. The clause applies to states, not to the United States in general. Congress can do whatever it likes with regard to territories. It can even ban taking slaves already in the US into territories. It will do so, banning the import of slaves to the Northwest, Mississippi, and Orleans Territories. Only the first of these bans is well known, and then as an absolute prohibition. That’s how it was written, but the choice of the first governor and indifference in Washington ensured it was never more than a questionably-secure ban on imports. The bans on imports to Mississippi territory (modern MS and Alabama, mostly) and Orleans (Louisiana, naturally) were more explicitly that, but only in effect briefly and are allowed to lapse. These precedents are relevant to later antebellum stuff, but again that takes us well past the bounds of the question.
  4. The clause allows Congress to exercise its power to ban the importation of slaves to the United States in general on, or at any point after, January 1, 1808. It’s not required to do so on that date or any other.
  5. None of this requires states to import slaves. All of them had enacted bans on it during the Revolution as part of the non-importation movement. But those bans were state law and could be reversed. They would be by Georgia (1787-98), North Carolina (1790-4), and of course South Carolina (1805-7).

 

Incidentally, all of these constitutional provisions are unamendable. They’re entrenched in the Constitution to exactly the same degree as the two senators per state rule.

Josiah Parker

Josiah Parker

That’s the lay of then land when the first Congress gets together. It took them literally thirteen days into the Washington presidency to get into a fight over slavery. Josiah Parker, of Virginia, got up in the House and suggested: hey, we have the authority in plain English to impose a ten dollar tax on slave imports right now. Why don’t we tax the crap out of them? In the ensuing debate representatives from Georgia and South Carolina made arguments that sounded downright 1850s, up to and including early attempts at a positive good defense of slavery. James Jackson (no relation that I’m aware of to Andrew or Thomas) of Georgia condemned it as “the most odious tax Congress could impose.”

That’s very far from New England, though. Roger Sherman, of Connecticut Compromise fame (and, you know, Connecticut) opposed Parker’s proposal on the grounds that it was an amendment to a general tariff bill. It really ought to come as its own bill, even though a tariff is exactly what Parker was proposing. The objection might sound a little suspicious, and maybe it was, but it was held so generally in the House that Parker agreed to withdraw his amendment and resubmit it as a freestanding bill.

Parker’s tax came back up and the House voted to postpone it to the next session, at which point it would get mixed up in a firestorm over antislavery petitions from some Quakers and Ben Franklin who also wanted the Congress to do something about the slave trade. Franklin’s petition asked that they “step to the very verge” of their power and…and maybe think about freeing any slaves illegally imported? The prospect of the United States government turning into an agent for active emancipation must have been wildly popular in the South, right? You’d expect the kind of slightly manic cheer that fills media aimed at very young children or certain hygiene products. History’s full of heartbreaking stuff, though. The Lower South went ballistic.

It didn’t get them much. A House committee took in the petitions and reported out a summary of Congress’ powers with regard to slavery. That report laid out much of what I summarized above, particularly that no ban would come before 1808. It also established accepted constitutional wisdom, even by Republicans, all the way to 1860:

  1. The Congress had no power to interfere with slavery in any way within the bounds of a state, either to emancipate the slaves or to regulate their treatment. However…
  2. Congress had the power to prohibit US citizens from carrying slaves to foreign ports and
  3. Could prohibit foreigners from setting up slavers for voyages in US ports, plus
  4. Congress could set standards for the treatment of slaves on ships bound for the US.

This report didn’t become law of any kind; the Senate never signed off on it. But the House as a whole endorsed it, over Southern objections, and antislavery societies took it as a how-to for their future slavery fighting.

Let’s look at items #2 and #3. This is a part of the slave trade that is almost invisible in the story of American antislavery, but it’s an important one. Remember above that the Constitutional restrictions apply to importation of slaves to the United States. They do not apply in any way to operations in the carrier trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba (mostly), the West Indies (number two), or ports in South America (fairly rare, but it happened).

That’s actually where most American slavers did their business. They were primarily New Englanders. We can narrow that down still further. The majority of American slave ships (~70%) were owned and built in Rhode Island. There were operations elsewhere in New England and in New York that registered on the contemporary radar, but the Rhode Islanders were conspicuously all over this. The trade was a major factor in their state’s economy in a way that it no longer was elsewhere, if it had ever been. (I honestly don’t know. Colonial-era slaving is well outside my expertise.) About two-thirds of their voyages brought slaves from Africa, mostly in exchange for rum distilled right back home in the smallest state, and took them to the Caribbean. The other third supplied the American South, but most slave imports to the United States arrived on foreign ships.

So here we have an explicit declaration of congressional power over a trade which isn’t actually that important to the South, since they get their slaves from foreigners, and which limiting would only really hurt Rhode Island. Thus, there’s some real action…eventually. Congress took until 1794, but then they passed the Slave Trade Act of 1794. George Washington put his John Hancock on it on March 22.

What’s the law do? American citizens, and anybody setting out from a US port, are prohibited

for himself or any other person whatsoever, either as master, factor or owner, build, fit, equip, load, or otherwise prepare any ship or vessel […] for the purpose of carrying on any trade or traffic in slaves, to any foreign country; or for the purpose of procuring, from any foreign kingdom, place or country, the inhabitants of such kingdom, place or country, to be transported to any foreign country, port, or place whatever, to be sold of or disposed of, as slaves

Do that particular dirty deed and your ship and all its accessories could be libeled, condemned, and forfeited to the United States in whatever district or circuit court happened to have jurisdiction. Furthermore, if you were involved with this sort of business, or aiding and abetting, you would take a $2,000 fine to be split between the United States and whoever prosecuted you. If you were a owner or master of a ship and even looked dodgy, and someone reported you to the customs officials, you could be required to swear an oath and give a bond that you would not embark any African or other natives to take elsewhere and sell as slaves for the following nine months. Congress wasn’t quite done yet. It also assessed a $200 per-head fine on any slaves you tried to traffic in, again split halfsies between the US and the prosecution.

You might anticipate a big controversy here and a law that just squeaked by, but it doesn’t seem so. I went looking for debates and the roll-call vote on the measure, but couldn’t find them. Don Fehrenbacher tells me that the law got “ready acceptance […] in both houses”. I’m inclined to believe him, but his footnote led me to a dead end. This is all in the Annals of Congress, which were compiled retrospectively from newspaper accounts decades later rather than recorded live, as it were. So it’s possible a debate happened and no one took much notice, but I’ve spent a couple of hours looking and I can’t even give you the vote totals. Beats me. (If anybody has found records of this stuff, please let me know; I’m desperately curious.) The law was, Fehrenbacher says, the result of some very carefully written antislavery petitions. In particular, they took great pains to avoid any request for abolition.

So the 1794 act becomes law. It’s not the most draconian thing, but the fines are quite high. It lacks for a good enforcement regime, though. Basically you’re looking at private prosecutions, which half the fine would buy the government. Those would mostly have to happen in the very places where the trade was most popular and its wealthy practitioners most influential. Long odds, right? Maybe, maybe not. It was enough to get Cyprian Sterry, one of Providence’s slaving bigwigs, to quit the business when the local antislavery groups promised to come after him.

And then there’s John Brown. No, not that John Brown with the wild beard and the badass mural in Kansas. (But seriously, look at that mural!) John Brown of the Brown University Browns. John Brown is having none of this crap about fines. The Congress can take its slave trade act and shove it. He’d been doing the same thing with Rhode Island’s state law against slave trading voyages since 1787. He sent a ship, the Hope, off a-slaving. Hope called at the Guinea coast, bought some people, and took them off to Cuba where the sale of the 229 survivors turned a handy profit.

Brown had clearly fitted out and set off a slaving voyage. His brother Moses, a Quaker convert, and the local Abolition Society came after him in a private prosecution. They made it their business to do this, but usually things got to the point where someone would sign an agreement to renounce the trade (as Sterry did) and they would drop the prosecution. Negotiations to that end did not budge Brown at all. Moses threatened him with more than the loss of an older ship if he kept at things, but Brown sucked up the loss of the Hope. Eventually it became clear that Brown was trying to push things to trial. If someone got nailed for illegally importing slaves they would have to face a jury, and a Rhode Island jury would probably not convict. Once that became an established fact, the law would be a dead letter.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Which it was, for the most part. The Washington administration did not bend over backwards to see the law enforced. Rhode Island’s commerce dipped for a year after passage, but then came right back. Between 1794 and 1804, Rhode Island saw twenty-two prosecutions but we know of at least two hundred voyages to Africa in the same time. It seems that the volume of the trade significantly increased after it became illegal. Good lawyering, friendly juries, and occasional intimidation kept it safe until Jefferson appointed one of the big name slavers to the customs post at Bristol in 1804. Shockingly, African clearances from there shot way up. Prosecutions did not.

I told you most of that to set this up. Come 1800, things are looking a little better for the 1794 law. The Adams administration is encouraging prosecutions and has a few ongoing. Congress decides to revisit things and improve on the old law with a supplementary bill. This one is going to jack the fines (double the value of vessels forfeited and price of the slaves), outlaw investment in slaving ventures (at the pain of losing twice your stake in them), and if you’re actually on the ship you could get two years’ jail. This applies to Americans doing their own trading destined for foreign ports, as well as Americans on board or investing in foreign vessels. If the Navy, or equivalent, does the capturing then its officers and crew are entitled to prize money. And if a private prosecution brings any of this about, the fines go halfsies to the US and the accuser again.

By this point, John Brown is 50% of Rhode Island’s House delegation. He has some things he needs to say. Quoting from the Annals of Congress here:

it [was] improper to prevent the citizens of the United States enjoying the benefits of a trade enjoyed by all the European nations. […] Many members of the House, he observed, knew how the former act was passed; they knew that Congress was drilled into it by certain persons who would not take *no* for an answer. It was well known that the Abolition Society, otherwise the Society of Friends, as they were called, were very troublesome until they got that act passed.

Cheeky of him to name the outfit his brother was a member of, and which had prosecuted him, by name. Brown went on to say that no American law forbade exporting Africans from Africa. So why not just let Americans take Africans where they pleased? Better to enjoy the proceeds than leave money laying on the table. They were slaves either way, ok? Cutting Americans out of such a lucrative business was just bad policy and, anyway:

it was wrong, when considered in a moral point of view, since, by the operation of the trade the very people themselves much bettered their condition.

He said it. Having crossed that Rubicon, which pitched him all the way down with the Lower South, Brown noted that Congress could fill up the Treasury with slave-produced revenues. Far better to do that then debt finance things, right? And it’s not like US law would prevent “one more slave” from being taken. It would just be some foreigner that did the taking. With distilleries idle, why not have the rum go off to buy people? Brown

had been well informed that on those coasts New England rum was much preferred to the best Jamaica spirits, and would fetch a better price.

This is, as I mentioned before, literally how Rhode Island bought slaves. Brown had been well informed by his own ledgers. I don’t know about Brown personally, but some of the traders owned their own distilleries.

I don’t know that any other New Englander spoke in opposition to the 1800 law. It passed on on May 10, 1800, clearing the house with all of five votes against. Who are those guys? Brown, of course, George Dent (MD), Joseph Dickson (NC), John Rutledge Jr. (SC), and Benjamin Huger (SC). It’s by no means a prefect indicator, but the fact that Brown alone votes against the bill paints him as a pretty marginal figure. The commerce is mostly a Rhode Island affair and the other Rhode Islander in the House didn’t vote against it. But one does have to consider that all previous acts turned out to be paper tigers. Even forfeited ships often got bought back by their previous owners for pittances. The 1800 revisions had as much effect as the 1794 original: a brief downturn followed by resumption and increase of voyages. Between the international situation and American non-enforcement, the US share of slave exports from Africa goes from an estimated 2% (1780s) to 9% in the following decade and then 16% for the first Jefferson administration.

Stephen Row Bradley

Stephen Row Bradley

Skipping a few minor episodes (making imports of slaves to a state that has closed the trade a federal offense that inspires SC, along with the money to be made importing slaves for further transit to Louisiana, to reopen the trade and a revival of the ten dollar tax that goes nowhere in retaliation against SC) we get to 1808…almost. We have to come up for a moment in December of 1805, when a New Englander gets conspicuous again. Stephen Row Bradley, of Vermont, gets up in the Senate and suggests they get cracking on a bill to prohibit slave imports, effective the first of 1808. The time might have seemed ripe, with states calling for a constitutional amendment to permit banning slave imports then and there not that long before, but Bradley’s proposal was taken as too soon all the same. There’s an undercurrent of doubt in all of this as to whether it’s proper for Congress to even consider an import ban before 1808, let alone years in advance.

December, 1806. Jefferson’s annual message (the equivalent to our State of the Union) recommends that Congress get an import ban together, effective January 1, 1808. Jefferson defended getting it done in advance on the grounds that it would mitigate against catching any vessels en route who may have started out legal but become illegal in passage. Bradley introduces his bill on December 3. There’s a broad consensus that now’s the time to do something and a ban should happen at the first available moment. Southerners even carp at the suggestion that they want anything else. The fights start over the details, with there being three big ones:

  1. What to do with people imported illegally? Should they be freed? If so, what does the nation do with them? Take them home? Settle them somewhere? Or do they remain slaves to be sold at auction? And if so, by whom? Was the federal government to become a slave trading operation? (Decided by the local jurisdiction, which meant kept as slaves and sold by state governments in the South.)
  2. What kind of penalty should violators face? (Original version: fines and forfeiture. Seen by most of the North as too little. Amended: death. Split the North, with many feeling it was too much. Final version: jail time.)
  3. Should Congress regulate the domestic maritime trade in slaves? Later on, this is often called the coastwise trade. Most of it runs from the Chesapeake to South Carolina, Georgia, and eventually Mobile and New Orleans. (Yes, but not much.)
John Randolph

John Randolph

These debates are not heavily studied, at least as of Matthew Mason’s Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting the Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States 1806-1807 (2000). Even contemporaries paid far more attention to other issues, despite often fiery rhetoric. The distinction is very much sectional, though Mason notes that the South prevailed as usual with the help of some northern cooperation. He doesn’t call out any New Englanders as conspicuous. This nuts and bolts wrangling took place in the House. The Senate recorded no debates or votes -thanks a lot, jerks-. Peter Early (Georgia) and John Randolph (Virginia) were conspicuous on the southern side, but if there was a particular locus of resistance in the New England delegations Mason doesn’t note it and I think he would have.

On the key vote as to what would happen with those people imported illegally, the House came to a 60-60 tie broken by the Speaker (Nathaniel Macon, NC). It got to that point with thirteen northerners voting against their section, eleven of them from mid-Atlantic states. They were Joseph Clay (PA), Henry Livingston (NY), Josiah Masters (NY), Gurdon Mumford (NY), John Russel (NY), Martin Schuneman (NY), Uri Tracy (NY), Phillip Van Cortlandt (NY), Killian K. Van Rensselaer (NY), Daniel C. Verplanck (NY), Eliphalet Wickes (NY)

What about those other two? I had to do a little hunting here, since it’s one of those things where you have to figure out which side is which and which is the relevant vote. It’s here. My method: I recognize the names of several southerners on sight, particularly the hard-liners, and know the section voted pretty solidly one way. So we want the nays. To be doubly-sure, and do the further sifting, I compared the nays with the roster here (PDF). I came out with, in addition to the previous list, Samuel Tenney (NH) and Peleg Wadsworth (MA).

Both are New Englanders, though neither is a Rhode Island man. I don’t know if Tenney and Wadsworth had any personal or constituency connections to the slave trade or not. This isn’t quite an up or down vote against slavery, though it’s close, so there may have been tactical considerations involved too. The strong New York connection to southern interests, political and economic, must be a factor for the others. New York’s remaining slave population might have served as another, but I’ve got my doubts considering they can’t have expected a whole lot of slavers to aim for their ports and so end up depositing human cargo locally where it would matter on a personal level that much. What slave ship is going to take a hold even partially full of people to a state that passed gradual emancipation in 1799 when there are so many more hospitable and profitable ports?

Which brings us to regulation of the coastwise trade, with the question being whether to limit the trade to vessels displacing forty tons or more. Twelve Upper South men voted for it, only ten northerners opposed. This was a significant limitation, as while an Atlantic-going slaver would run around 158 tons, the coastwise trade involved mostly vessels smaller than that.

So let’s fine those dissenting Yankees again. The vote is here. We want the Nays. There are seven repeat offenders from the last vote here: Josiah Masters (NY), Gurdon Mumford (NY), Martin Schuneman (NY), Samuel Tenney (NH), Uri Tracy (NY), and Killian K. Van Rensselaer (NY). That leaves us three to find. They are Silas Betton (NH), Martin Chittenden (VT), Samuel Dana (CT). One wonders just what Martin Chittenden and Stephen Bradley said to each other when they got home.

So there’s four New Englanders in the mix, counting Tenney with the three new arrivals. That’s not a lot (35 New England reps total, 20 of them Federalists) but it is something. The New England of the very early 1800s is not the New England of the 1840s and 1850s. It’s a place where antislavery is popular, but it’s not the region-defining thing it would be in future years. That begins to emerge when it becomes clear that the Federalists are done as a national party and they don’t need to be appealing to enslavers anymore as their partners in Virginia and South Carolina in particular are no longer interested. I don’t know what’s going on with the Chittenden in Vermont at all, and Rhode Island is conspicuous in its absence (both RI reps are Republicans at the time, so maybe party whip and certainly the impotence of previous laws would be a factor), but they must have had their reasons. The state didn’t lose interest in slave trading for a while yet hereafter.

I fired up my Biographical Directory of the United States Congress to see if there was a partisan angle. All four are federalists. Party lines aren’t as hard as they would become, but they could be looking to keep alive a national Federalism by resisting Jefferson’s program in hopes of wooing back southern coalition partners. But it’s only an inclination, against the general trend of their party’s vote, and it’s not too long after this that the party try to position themselves as a New England sectional party with an antislavery bent. On the balance, and absent any meaningful biographical data about them, I don’t think partisanship is the main factor. I can’t say for sure that there are personal or constituency interests driving them, but it seems likely.

I haven’t gone looking in the debate myself to see if any of the against-the-grain guys spoke up in an interesting way, but between my sources I think if they said anything useful and it survived, I’d have seen it quoted. It’s rare for them to even be mentioned by name. Mason notes that for all the fireworks in Congress, the slave trade prohibition doesn’t seem to have drawn many eyeballs. With the exception of Bradley, few of the antislavery party even seem to have felt it was the main event of the Ninth Congress. (Though it was the big event of their generation of antislavery activism.) The papers took little interest, and the Annals were collected largely from newspaper reports, so things probably have slipped away.

The bill passes on March 2, 1807, which brings us to our last vote. Only five men vote to keep the trade open. It is actually open at this point, because SC still has it going. They are Silas Betton (NH), Martin Chittenden (VT), James M. Garnett (VA), Abram Trigg (VA), and David R. Williams (SC). No Rhode Islanders but two New Englanders willing to take it to the bitter end and go on record, both Federalists. Chittenden remains the real mystery to me. New Hampshire at least has a coastline. He was born in northwestern Connecticut, but left there when he was thirteen. That’s old enough to have opinions, maybe. He was educated at Dartmouth and may have picked up his position there, but that would be a question for his biographer.

Sources

It’s very likely that I’m forgetting some.

The Slaveholding Republic by Don Fehrenbacher on the mechanics of the slave trade and law in particular, but also John Brown.

James, Sydney V. Of Slaves and Rum. Reviews in American History 10.2 (1982): 168-72. Web. A book review that gives some details from The Notorious Triangle, about Rhode Island and the slave trade which I desperately want to read, but is well outside my research budget.

Mason, Matthew E. Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting the Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States, 1806-1807. Journal of the Early Republic 20.1 (2000): 59-81. Web for fine-grain details of the votes and debates.

Slavery & Politics in the Early American Republic by Mason was helpful or situating the New England Federalists.

Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification by David Waldstreicher for the Constitutional Convention and Yankee-Carolina alliance.

And a finding aid for the John Brown Papers (PDF) at the Rhode Island Historical Society for more information about Brown and how the Abolition Society operated.

When the arc of our history bends toward injustice

Internal Enemy CoverThe popular account of American history begins with a collection of demigods in powdered wigs. They discourse eloquently on political theory, making timeless arguments that hateful reactionaries scorned. Therefore, they embarked upon a gentlemanly war that ended in triumph. The French might have had something to do with it, but only to show that even the ossified Ancien Regime could see the fundamental justice of the patriot cause. Then passes a brief era of which we speak little, then the Constitution. In George Washington’s blessed administration, some arcane matter involving who rooted for or against the French Revolution animates passions. Alexander Hamilton, the dastard, has something to do with that. The Federalists careen off the rails, setting themselves up as rightful masters and march happily toward authoritarianism. Then Thomas Jefferson saves the nation in 1800. The Federalist assault on civil liberties comes and goes so quickly that it largely serves to demonstrate the (Jeffersonian) Republican Party’s righteousness. The nation has imperfections, but it doesn’t do to think too much on them. Anyway, they all worked themselves out. The United States, born perfect, became more perfect still. We take the march of freedom as our central theme. The arc of our history bends toward justice.

Most people probably know that freedom didn’t rise the same for everybody, even if we don’t care to admit it. Federalist, Democrat, and Whig all did little enough to liberate slaves. It took a second, rather different, set of Republicans to do much in that direction and then only under uniquely dire circumstances. We could add women and Native Americans to the list of people left out in freedom’s march. The usual phrasing, “left out,” implies oversight. No one set out to deny large portions of the human family any deserved spot in the sun. It just happened, ok? We administer our injustices best when we imagine them as a kind of natural phenomena. Nobody sends the wind and rain; you can’t blame someone for them. Nor could you expect some kind of reparation for the damages they inflict.

Failing that, we can rationalize. If a certain group of Americans don’t succeed as well as another, we attribute it to inherent inferiority. We might call it culture these days, but employ essentialist language entirely in keeping with older racial and national theories. In doing so, we transform an accident into someone else’s just do. If we can’t have innocence, then we can claim a kind of just vengeance. We life in a righteous world, which rewards deserving and undeserving with what they have coming.

The language of racial inferiority, like that of injustice as a natural disaster, communicates a fixed state. Whether deliberately or not, white Americans left others out or behind. If our ancestors did wrong, then they didn’t actively make things worse. Students of Indian history would rightly quarrel with that. Most of us probably know that disease killed most Indians, even if recent scholarship demonstrates convincingly otherwise. But Black Americans came here as slaves. They had nowhere to go but up. Surely nothing white Americans could do could make their lives worse than the brute fact of slavery already had. However talented we imagine our national ancestors, even they had limits.

But what if they did? What if the advance of white freedom depended not merely on black deprivation, but on increasingly common and severe deprivations? In reading Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832, I have come on a clear case of just that.

I remember reading in my textbook, lo those many years ago, how the revolution unleashed a wave of freedom across the land. Americans, free from the dead hand of wicked Britain, liberated themselves through revising their constitutions, broadening the franchise, and other innovations. They even manumitted large numbers of slaves. The post-independence emancipations, all the way up to New Jersey’s in 1804, fit neatly into the narrative. If you read my textbook or one like it, you might have seen reference to the abolition of primogeniture and entail as well. Taylor explains how these worked:

Entail and primogeniture mandated that a great landowner pass on a landed estate (including slaves) intact to one heir, usually the first-born son, rather than divide that estate equally among all of the children. Perpetual in the male line, an entail barred any heir of any future generation from subdividing and selling or otherwise devising the property in parts. The owner had to preserve the estate for his eldest son and could not even mortgage it to borrow funds. The lone exception came when a generation had no male heir to inherit; in such cases, the daughters inherited jointly and divided the estate: considered a tragedy by a legal system that cherished the continuity of wealth in the male line. Aristocratic in design, entail and primogeniture sought to preserve a great estate through the generations. During the colonial era, Virginia’s great planters emulated the English aristocracy by entailing three-fourths of the lands in the Tidewater. Very few entails could be broken by later generations without great expense to navigate through a complex legal thicket.

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Location 704). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

If this sounds like a recipe for permanently consolidated wealth and large numbers of well-born, but discontented white men, you have heard correctly. How could a gentleman of expectations get ahead when denied a reasonable share of the patrimony? This meant little to farmers of modest means, but it burned at the well-off. During the revolutionary era, those Virginians campaigned hard for the abolition of such laws as vestiges of the aristocratic past unwelcome in the new, democratic and republican age. White men deserved equality in rights. Entail and primogeniture required inequality. They should set their own course in life, but the laws fixed them to the states determined by their ancestors. They couldn’t sell their estates, or any part, or even take loans against them. How much more backward could one get?

Well off, white Virginians could scarcely expect a worse problem short of a slave revolt or abolition. Of the three fates, they had scarce experience with revolts and none with abolition, but quite a lot with restrictive inheritance laws. In abolishing the two (entail in 1776, primogeniture in 1785) they expected that the division of large estates between many heirs would bring about greater equality for white men and that the freedom to manage estates as one wished would serve as a good in itself. To the disgust of the crustier Virginians, the reformers had it right. Estates did divide. Enslavers had the freedom to manage their property as they saw fit. Freedom marched on.

Those estates, however, included people. So long as entail held, an enslaver could not sell off any slaves he came to by inheritance. Instead he had to keep them together with the rest of his property. This meant that enslaved people, though still subject to most of slavery’s horrors, could expect to remain together with their families and children. The architects of the old system of inheritance didn’t intend that outcome, but it happened all the same. The new market-oriented, white egalitarian freedom meant an end to that:

The reformed inheritance laws promoted a surge in the sale of slaves by owners seeking cash. During the 1780s, 40 percent of slaves advertised in the Virginia press had been sold at least once before in their lives: up from 24 percent during the 1760s. Virginia planters increasingly valued slave children for future sale. Richard Blow assured his son, “I think it useless to raise up families of them for any other purpose but to sell.” Jefferson deemed “a woman who brings a child every two years as more valuable than the best man on the farm. What she produces is an addition to capital, while his labor disappears in mere consumption.”

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Locations 741-746). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The division of estates broke slave families and rendered those which remained more tenuous. You don’t have to read many slave narratives to recognize that enslaved people felt the loss of loved ones as keenly as anybody else. They often listed it alongside whipping as one of the key horrors of their lives. The end of entails freed enslavers to commence the great forced migration from the Upper South into the Cotton Kingdom which so thoroughly dismembered families in the decades to come.

In addition to that, the new laws simultaneously expand the number of enslaving Virginians. While the number of slaves held in vast estates shrank, giving more white Virginians a direct financial stake in slavery only increased their already strong practical attachment to it. The practice of renting out slaves to others grew as well, further entrenching bondage within the Old Dominion:

After the revolution, the renting of slaves increased as a means for masters to profit from surplus slaves, in contrast to manumitting them, which brought no financial reward. Many widows hired out their inherited slaves to derive an income while avoiding the rigors of supervising and punishing them. Executors of estates also rented out slaves to support orphans until they came of legal age. During the 1790s a farmer could rent a prime male field hand for $ 31 per year, about a tenth of the cost of buying such a slave. And an adult woman cost only about $ 11 per year, compared to $ 200 for a purchase. As renters, common men could acquire slave labor more readily than by purchase. The surge in postwar hiring further spread slaves among the white households of Virginia.

Taylor, Alan (2013-09-09). The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (Kindle Locations 757-762). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

The dislocation and disruption of someone else’s life proves a far easier burden to bear than sudden changes to one’s own. When fewer people owned slaves or directly oversaw them, abolition must seem much more possible. The more people own slaves, the more they will object to challenging the system. They had a cultural stake as free white men regardless, and we should not downplay its significance, but adding a material stake to slavery could hardly do other than encourage them to defend bondage more devotedly.

Virginia probably wouldn’t have abolished slavery in the Revolutionary era anyway; it had far more slaves and enslavers than any of the states that did. But by liberalizing its inheritance laws, the Old Dominion both enhanced slavery’s durability and made the lives of a great many of its slaves more insecure and generally worse than they had hitherto endured. The advance of freedom for its fortunate sons came not just on the backs of already mistreated human property, but also through greater abuse still. To grow their freedom required shrinking the already tiny freedom of their slaves.

How Virginia Became Southern

American Slavery, American Freedom

American Slavery, American Freedom

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.

John Smith

John Smith

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.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

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.