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Thursday, July 7, 2011


As I have already noted, in the very earliest Colonial period, almost all non-Native Americans, White and Black, were unfree. The terms of indenture were extremely severe, and were frequently lengthened by the courts as punishment for even minor infractions of the law. We ought not to be misled by the use of the term "servant," which to modern ears conjures images of housemaids, cooks, and nannies. In the days of John Locke [in whose Second Treatise one can find the claim that the labor of my 'servant' belongs to me, so that when my servant mixes his labor with a piece of the common, by tilling it, that piece becomes mine, not his], the word "servant" carried with it the meaning of "servile," "unfree," "enslaved." The treatment of indentured servants was brutally harsh and cruel, although there is some documentary evidence that even in those earliest of days Africans were treated more harshly still.

Little by little, as I have indicated, the category of "hereditary chattel slave," new to the Common Law, came to be defined by the practices, court decisions, and positive law of the Colonies. While full-blown chattel slavery was emerging from the early seventeenth confusion of bound labor, a parallel process was taking place with regard to the status of Whites. As time passed, the condition of the White indentured servants was progressively ameliorated. Laws were passed forbidding some of the more extreme forms of abuse visited by masters on their servants. Perhaps even more important, limits were placed on the practice of renewing or extending a servant's time of indenture.

Indentured servitude was not entirely eliminated by law until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 ["Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction"], but the practice slowly died out in the early nineteenth century. Little by little, rights and protections that had originally been enjoyed only by the elite few came to be the birthright of virtually all White inhabitants of the Colonies.

This evolution of chattel slavery and free citizenship was more than merely a parallel unfolding of two unconnected ideals. Each depended in complex ways on the other. Edmund Morgan first spelled out this intimate relationship in 1975 in a book that has earned the reputation of a classic among professional historians. In his study of Colonial Virginia, American Slavery - American Freedom, Morgan details the ways in which the transformation of indentured servants into free citizens actually prompted landowners to turn to slave labor. "The connection between American slavery and freedom is evident at many levels if we care to see it," he observes. "As Virginians nourished an increasing contempt for blacks and Indians, they began to raise the status of lower-class whites. The two movements were complementary."

Recently, some authors have taken to using a rather uncomplimentary term for states that fit the description I have been developing of America. They call them White Settler States. For most of us, that conjures up pictures of British East Africa or Portuguese Angola or perhaps the South Africa of the Boers. White Americans don't like to see themselves in such pictures. They much prefer Land of Freedom, Land of Liberty, a Welcoming Home to Huddled Masses Yearning to be Free. But facts are facts, and if the shoe fits ...

Liberty and Slavery emerged from the same inchoate mixture of unfree labor, during the more than century and a half between the settlement of the first colonies and the establishment of the United States. When it came time for the Founding Fathers to craft the Constitution, they wrote into it both the assurance of extensive liberties to Whites, and the ratification of enslavement for Blacks. The liberties of Whites were guaranteed by the republican form of government and by a group of Amendments that guaranteed to all Whites [or at least to all White males] rights, privileges, and protections that a century earlier had belonged only to an elite few. As for slavery, the Framers never used the word "slave" or its cognates. Instead they spoke of "free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years" to refer to White people, and "other persons" to refer to slaves. They thus resolved in their founding document the question whether the slaves were persons, while guaranteeing that their owners could continue to treat them as property.

The standard view of America, shared by scholars, orators, and the general public, is that the nation was founded as the embodiment of an Idea of Freedom, which was cherished, celebrated, but at first only imperfectly realized. Slowly, over many generations and with the calamity of a great Civil War, the imperfections in the instantiation of the Idea were eliminated. First, and most important, was the extending to persons of color of the rights and guarantees of Freedom. Then women were granted the franchise. Later still, rights not yet fully enjoyed by the descendants of the former slaves were written into law. And today, we see the last stages of this majestic process unfolding with the extension of legal equality to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Americans. Each step of this long march toward Freedom has been a struggle against entrenched prejudice, but the outcome has been ensured by the deep, unbreakable commitment of all Americans to the great Idea of Freedom.

On this view, Freedom is the centerpiece, the theme, the main story line of the American experience, and the shortfalls are all marginal and temporary blemishes, requiring effort to be eliminated, but never compromising the central, organizing narrative. But the truth is completely different. If indeed there is a story of America, it is a story of the dialectical intertwining of freedom and bondage. Not only was the bondage of the slaves clarified and deepened its by contrast with the freedom of Whites; what constituted freedom for Whites was defined by its contrast with the enslavement of Blacks. When I was young, there was a catch phrase that was repeated, thoughtlessly, but significantly. If I wished to declare, defiantly, my intention of doing something that was generally disapproved, I might say, "Why shouldn't I? I am free, White, and twenty-one!" Free, White, and twenty-one. That was to say, a grownup, an American, and not Black.

One might imagine that this contrast died with the abolition of slavery, but nothing could be further from the truth. During more than a century after the end of the Civil War, the contrast between bondage and freedom was encoded in the Jim Crow laws that separated the races and condemned people of color to a second class citizenship. When those barriers to freedom fell, a new language was devised to mark the distinction between bondage and freedom. "Ghetto" and "underclass" communicated the same division, and once again, Whites defined themselves by their contrast with people of color, this time by identifying themselves as "Middle Class."

American political rhetoric these days is obsessed with the needs, the interests, the concerns of "Middle Class Americans." Now, taken as an economic, or socio-economic, term of art, "Middle Class American" is utterly incoherent. Households making anywhere from forty thousand to four hundred thousand dollars a year are routinely referred to as "middle class." There is no longer the slightest suggestion that "middle class" identifies people who are, in some measurable sense, "in the middle." It takes very little sensitivity to language to grasp that "middle class" now means "not living in the ghetto," "not living in the inner city," Not Black. Now that the "strivers", as Black professionals and entrepreneurs used to be called, have moved from the inner city to the suburbs, it has become acceptable to acknowledge the existence of a Black "middle class," although the election of a Black President triggered deep-rooted anxieties so powerful as to reveal the continued presence in America of this identification-by-contrast rooted in the nation's past.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the real meaning of the outpouring of hysteria prompted by the election of Obama. It was not, in the ordinary sense, an expression of prejudice. Rather, it was a cry of desperation. Since my freedom is defined in contrast to their bondage, if they throw off all the chains of that bondage by appropriating what is ritually conceived as the most elevated position in the nation, than I am no longer free!

This, I suggest, is the our real national story. America came into existence as a site of bondage and freedom -- bondage for the many, and freedom for a handful. Over time, that dynamic duality evolved into bondage for Africans and their descendants and freedom for White settlers and their descendants. With the end of formal, legal bondage, new dualities of freedom and bondage took their place, and continue in altered form to the present.

This is the story that Black historians told as they climbed to the crest of the hill and surveyed the plain below. It is a story that has been elaborated and grounded in deep archival research by Black and White historians alike, but to this day, it has failed to replace the story told in schools and from podia of America as the embodiment of the Idea of Freedom.

In the next part of this tutorial, we shall take a look at the evolution of that historiography.


NQ said...

Since you brought up contemporary politics in this post, and spoke about the founding fathers in the past, I was wondering what you made of Bachmann's recent comments about the founding fathers "working tirelessly" to eradicate slavery.

The most charitable interpretation that I (a Canadian who has only been living in the US for a few years) can give is the following:

"America was founded on the ideal, not the fact, of freedom. This idea was not and is not developed to the same extent in everyone at any given time. So while all or nearly all inhabitants of the colonies did espouse freedom, only the enlightened few were able to have more forward-thinking views on the matter. These forward thinking few included the Founding Fathers, whom we all quite rightly revere for that and other reasons. The charge that they owned slaves is unfair - as you yourself said, Prof. Wolff, Washington released his slaves upon his death, and John Quincy Adams, while a boy during the revolutionary war, did work to eradicate slavery. To the charge that they could have eradicated slavery from the outset, we can reply that the Founders were aware that doing so would have sunk any hopes for a viable union. All politicians and social reformers must balance their goals with the stability of the system - a system breakdown may lead to the worst of all possible worlds for all. The Founders thought, in good faith and consistent with their enlightened understanding of freedom, that slavery could most quickly be eradicated by tabling the question for the moment and returning to it when two conditions were met: (1)the political system could handle it without collapsing, and (2)the American people's inherent sense of liberty had evolved sufficiently to allow them to come to understand the need for the eradication of slavery."

The point here is that this line of argument tries to salvage the idea that America was founded on the idea (Idea?) of freedom, only that this idea, while present in all or nearly all, was just not sufficiently developed in most at the time of the founding. So on this line, (a)the founders were still the godly figures "we" imagine them to be, and (b)the colonists, while misguided, were nonetheless "freedom lovers"

It goes without saying that I don't agree with this interpretation. I'm wondering to what degree it's consistent, and / or able to muster popular support. I should say that it's consistent with a meme that I've frequently heard since moving here: "The genius of America is that even if we don't get it right at first, our wonderful innovative system allows us to correct our errors and get it right in the end!"

In any event, I'm really enjoying this tutorial - thanks for taking the time to write it!

David Hawthorne said...

Your observation that African slaves were valued (more) for their knowledge and skill than their 'brute labor' is an important correction to conventional wisdom. However, it's also provides am important lesson to those working to promote economic development: Our obsession with the role of capital and the accumulation of wealth leads to lousy trade and development policy. It 'fosters' the formation of 'strongmen' and the 'corruption' of commercial systems while neglecting the value of knowledge and skill. The inherent social stratification of slavery insures that 'slaves' will not develop the social and economic networks that facilitate the accumulation of wealth. Lighter class constraints (the social isolation of agricultural workers, renters, industrial workers, process managers, skilled labor, and so on) provide similar constraints on the formation of social networks.The Internet may, to some extent, provide a crack in the armor of capitalism, provided we develop the proper tactics and tools to prevent the privatization of digital bandwidth. (Bandwidth is not technically limited and should be protected as a public good, like breathable air and drinkable water.)

Perhaps the most severe constraint imposed on slaves, and later on other classes of people, was access to education. All these barriers weakened over time, but each one was in an of itself an obstacle that had to be overcome serially, like fortifications in an endless war.

In the meantime, the powerful erased their own memories of these pitched battles or relegated them to artifacts of a time and people long gone. Today, however, that legacy lives on, subsumed in the claptrap of "sacred obligations to investors," mythic contributions by "Silicon Valley," and "Wall Street" movers and shakers if 'they knew how to grow rice' or develop digital communications and computing technology.

The continuing effort within the US Supreme Court to create a 'Super Citizenship" for corporations is simply the latest 'counter attack' by the "ownership" class. They have redeployed the forces in new formations but they have not given up the fight or changed their objectives. "All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind." --Adam Smith, WEALTH OF NATIONS-1776.

imcdpe said...

It's difficult for a foreign-born American like me to understand the import of consequences of slavery, as they propagate throughout American history. Other countries had (have) an underclass, and even forms of indentured labor, but the fact that in the US it was based on race adds a whole new dimension to it.

David Hawthorne said...

NQ, I didn't read your post until after I had posted my own. Nonetheless, I think my post contains a bit of a response: slavery in America was an economic expression not a 'moral' position. Slave trade and serfdom was banned in London in the early 1122 AD. It took nearly 6 more centuries for the prohibition of slavery to become the law of the land, and another century before it became England's global policy. It is fair to say that all the arguments for and against slavery were well known in the colonies and that the the sparsely populated New World made the economic choice to establish slavery to help fill labor gaps as "cheaply as possible" without needing to share ownership.

The 'rice' narrative seems well founded. The colonists were not interested in luring settlers from Europe by giving away potentially valuable and abundant real estate, nor necessarily interested in welcoming potentially competitive tradespeople and shopkeepers. Indeed, the early settlers, along much of the eastern seaboard were 'religious' affinity groups of one stripe or another. Even these groups were not particular supportive of diversity, with differences in 'belief' often resulting in splinter sects that moved collectively to new territories (e.g. Rhode Island).

Coming out of a waning culture of aristocracy and a booming economic movement based on mercantilism, trade, and exploration, the main appetite for freedom was 'freedom-to-own'. It wasn't until the arrival of the 'industrial age' took hold that 'owning skilled labor' became a low margin business.

I'm reasonably confident that our 'founding fathers' spent precious little time worrying about the 'equal rights' of humans who were not co-religionists, countrymen, and male. (That's one reason why I find the 'strict construction' of the US Constitution' to be an absolute MacGuffin-on-the-Right." The document was meant to be interpreted today, just as it was interpreted in the past --in contemporary context, and thereafter, debated and amended as needed. It was to be a foundation for the future, not a monument to the past.

Amato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amato said...

Professor I think you've brought up a very significant point about America taking shape around this dichotomy--i.e. freedom and slavery, Black and White. I would add—although, you touched on it somewhat indirectly—that "whiteness" and "blackness" as racial identities also developed in opposition to each other. Europeans and their descendants in America developed a sense of themselves often in opposition to the Africa. What was art, language, religion, and, of course, intellect was all seen against the backdrop of the African "savages." Much of the problem we face today is not the legal dichotomy that was formed in the early America, but the indelible belief that blackness, in its cultural opposition to whiteness, is wrong. And furthermore, it is even felt among white liberals that what passes for mainstream culture is racially neutral, when in fact that is far from the truth.