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Friday, July 12, 2013


The distinguished American historian Edmund. S. Morgan died five days ago at the age of ninety-seven.  One of his books, American Slavery American Freedom [1975] profoundly shaped my understanding of the history of this country, an understanding to which I tried to give voice in my last book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.  As a kind of memorial to his passing, I should like to summarize briefly what I said at greater length in that book.  I believe that what Morgan taught us remains of central importance today in our conception of the story of America.

The dominant "story of America," as I documented it by a close study of the three most successful twentieth century college American History textbooks, is the Story of Freedom, of English colonists coming to an empty continent in search of religious and political liberty.  Their early and imperfect attempts to instantiate the Idea of Freedom in their political institutions failed at first to offer full liberty to the propertyless, to women, and most notably to the Africans whom they brought forcibly to these shores and enslaved.  But slowly, haltingly, painstakingly, America labored to make its Ideal of Freedom a reality for all of its people.  The central traumatic episode of this centuries-long process was the great Civil War that freed the slaves, but the struggle continues to the present day, with the Civil Rights movement, Women's Liberation, LGBT Liberation all bringing us closer to the fulfillment of the original promise of the colonial settlers.  America, according to this story, is the only nation ever to be founded on an Idea.  It is, in the oft-quoted words of John Winthrop, a City Upon a Hill, whose lights shines abroad, calling to it all those who hunger for Liberty.

In these days of post-everything disillusion, it may be difficult for the young to believe that anyone save candidates for public office ever talked this way about America, but I can assure you that just this story, told in precisely this un-ironic fashion, was read and studied by generations of college students at the most distinguished colleges and universities in America.

There have always been dissident voices in the historiographical chorus, most  notably that of W. E. B. Du Bois, whose classic work, Black Reconstruction, told the true story of America three generations before professional historians began to take cognizance of it.  Morgan's detailed, revolutionary study of colonial Virginia, although it was focused on the early developments in only one of the colonies, revealed a story with a fundamentally different structure.  To state Morgan's thesis in a catchphrase. echoed in the title of his book, the story of America is not the story of the slow unfolding of the Idea of Freedom.  Rather, the it is the story of the intertwined unfolding of a dual story:  American Slavery -- American Freedom.

Let me summarize Morgan's core idea briefly.  Those who wish a fuller exposition are urged, in the first instance, to read Morgan himself, and, failing that, to take a look at Chapters Two and Three of my little book.  Here is the central idea.

The North American continent was colonized by those seeking land on which to grow cash crops for the European market.  In the earliest days, the most lucrative crop was tobacco, but rice and sugar were also profitable, and of course eventually cotton took precedence over these.  Transforming virgin forest into farmland suitable for planting required enormous amounts of very hard labor, and the entrepreneurs seeking to turn a profit imported unfree laborers, at first using the English common law status of indentured servitude as the principal vehicle.  In 1619, the first African prisoners were brought to the Virginia colony, initiating what would eventually become the established institution of racially encoded chattel slavery. 

At first, the overwhelming majority of non-Native Americans were unfree.  They were bound in some cases by the terms of their indenture, in other cases by the nascent forms of what became slavery.  Indentured servants could not marry whom they wished, change employers, travel as they wished, enter freely into contracts in the marketplace, hold public office, or do any of the other things that were the birthright of the relatively small numbers of "free men."

Over a period of a century and a half or more, stretching from the earliest arrivals to the Revolutionary War, two sharply differentiated legal statuses crystallized out of this confused legal, social, and economic mixture.  On the one side, there slowly evolved the idea of the free citizen, an idea that found full expression in the Constitution as the status of Citizen.  On the other side, standing in contradistinction to the status of Citizen, there emerged in full legal form the category of Slave.  Each of these statuses was defined in its relation to the other.  To be a Citizen was precisely to be Not a Slave.  To be a slave was precisely to be Not a Citizen.

America, from its founding, was not a Land of Freedom.  It was --and it remains to this very day, in one form or another -- a Land of Slavery and Freedom.  This is the key to understanding the hysterical panic engendered in so many White Americans by the prospect of Black and Brown Americans achieving something resembling full citizenship.  Just as countless heterosexual Americans feel their heterosexuality threatened by the legitimation of homosexuality, as though their heterosexuality can only exist in a world that condemns homosexuality, so countless Americans feel intuitively and instinctively that their freedom is possible only so long as it stands in contradistinction to the unfreedom of others.  They understand, even though they cannot bring that realization to self-conscious articulation, that the American concept of the Free Citizen emerged out of a process of differentiation from the concept of the Slave.  To put it as simply as I can, many Americans are convinced that they are not free unless someone else -- darker of skin than they are, poorer than they are, less fully American than they are -- is unfree.

This is the true story of America.  It is the lasting legacy of Edmund S. Morgan that almost forty years ago he taught us this dark truth about ourselves in American Slavery American Freedom.

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