47: Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom

In American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, Edmund Morgan studies the social and political history of Virginia from the 1580s to about 1720, and he argues that the supposed political harmony and freedom in Virginia after 1730 was symbiotically related to the enslavement of black people – freedom and slavery didn’t just co-exist; they mutually constructed one another.

Apparently the trajectory of Virginia’s growth closely followed the pattern set out by Jack Greene in In Pursuit of Happiness: small and disorganized in Jamestown; then a tobacco boom starting in 1615, which creates huge disparities of wealth between planters and workers, as well as high mortality and increased individualism; then social stabilization from 1630 to 1680, when the mortality rate dropped and, despite Bacon’s Rebellion in 1670, elites centralized control; and then the increased substitution of slavery after 1680, which solved the problem of freed indentured servants wanting land and, through racism, created a bond between lower and upper-class whites.  And racism, combined with 18th century ideology of the common man and a dwindling number of non-landowning whites, froze social relations and neutralized dissent in a way that allowed elites to support freedom and slavery to be the thing that held freedom up.

This thesis – that freedom and exploitation are intertwined – seems like a pretty classic Marxist argument to me.  What Morgan adds to the equation is the development of racism as a consciously applied tool of capitalist exploitation.  I’m a little confused about how, exactly, racism comes about – do the elites invent it?  Do the roving bands of unemployed former indentured servants invent it?  Is is already in the air because of experience with Native Americans?  But regardless of origins, this idea of racism as a tool of economic oppression is now pervasive in whiteness studies, so maybe he’s on to something.

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