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Wednesday, July 6, 2011


One of the oddest and logically most incoherent practices of the slave regime was manumission, the setting free of an enslaved person. From time to time, slave masters who had become fond of their slaves, and had even, perhaps, cohabited with them or fathered them, freed them from the bondage of slavery, and declared them henceforth to be free men and women. [One is reminded of the Emperor Caligula, who made his horse a member of the Roman Senate.] We are so familiar with stories of Founding Fathers who wrote into their last wills and testaments the freeing of some of their slaves that we tend simply so say to ourselves "Oh, isn't that nice," without reflecting on how peculiar this practice of manumission was.

In America, then and now, if I own a pig, the law protects my exclusive right to the use and enjoyment of that pig. Should there come a time when I no longer want my pig, I have every right to turn it loose in the forest to run freely [perhaps not so easy these days even in rural America, what with zoning laws and such.] I might go so far as to publish an advertisement in the local newspaper declaring that henceforth I forswear all claim to the pig. But I clearly do not have the authority to forbid any other person from seeking out that pig and making it his or hers. I do not have the right to say to the world: "No one may seize that pig and declare ownership in it." In other words, I do not have the authority to declare that the pig is for all future time unownable.

But that is precisely what a slave master did by freeing or manumitting, a slave. When George Washington, in his last will and testament, freed his slaves [an act that somehow eluded Thomas Jefferson], he thereby forbade anyone in the new nation from ever enslaving them again. It is a testimony to the logical absurdity of slavery that manumission was recognized and acknowledged as a legitimate act.

The existence of free Blacks eventually became an embarrassment to the slave states, for it conflicted with the rationalization, eventually evolved for the institution, that held that persons with any "drop of Black blood" were by their nature meant to be enslaved. Some Southern states even passed laws requiring non-slave Blacks to leave, on pain of being re-enslaved. Nevertheless, right up to the end of the institution of slavery, there were free Blacks in the South as well as in the North, giving the lie to this rationale. One of my former students, Dr. Rita Reynolds, has studied in detail the lives of a group of relatively wealth free Blacks who lived in the heart of the old Confederacy, Charleston, South Carolina. One of her striking discoveries was that free Black men were more likely than their White counterparts in their wills to nominate their wives, and not a male relative, to run the business after their death.

There are many signs in the earliest records of what we today would call racial prejudice. Nevertheless, it would be a very bad mistake to suppose that Africans were exploited, oppressed, and used as cheap labor because of racial prejudice. The central fact of Colonial America was unfree labor -- bondage -- and Africans were brought here by force from their homes for the same reason that English men and women were bound by indenture -- because those who ruled the Colonies had an insatiable need for forced labor. As my UMass colleague John Bracey said to me one day when I was going on in our doctoral Major Works Seminar about racial prejudice in the early days of America, "Bob, when the English got to North America, they didn't look around and say, 'This is an ideal place, a perfect place to create a new society. We've got everything we need except some Black people to dislike. Let's go get some and bring them over here so that we can discriminate against them'." It sounds pretty silly when you put it that way, but John was making an important point, especially in light of the current view in some quarters that African-Americans are not good workers. The Africans were kidnapped and brought here because the colonists believed they would be productive workers, despite the necessity of forcing them to that work by whippings and even mutilations.

Indeed, as Dr. Tanya Mears has shown in some groundbreaking archival research on what were called "last words" -- the sayings of those condemned to death in Colonial New England, along with sermons preached about them and poetry written about them -- the language used to describe condemned criminals of African descent was not noticeably different from that used to describe White criminals. Sermonizers such as the famous Jonathan Edwards went out of their way to insist that the White members of the congregation, before whom the fate of the condemned was held up as an object lesson, were in as much danger as the Black criminal of ending on the gallows, and after that in hell, unless they changed their ways.

In some parts of Colonial America, Africans were preferred over other forced laborers precisely because of their special skills. In South Carolina, for example, where rich rice plantations were established along the Waccamaw River, it was the agricultural skills of West Africans that made the profitable enterprises possible. Charles Joyner tells the story in his beautifully evocative study, Down By The Riverside. It is worth listening to him for a bit. "Africans were in South Carolina from the beginning of settlement and played a major role in establishing rice culture....The early technological knowledge was supplied by Africans, not Europeans. To support this statement it is not necessary to establish that all, or even most, of the Africans who came to South Carolina were experienced in rice culture. All that is necessary is to point out that none of the Europeans, whether from the British Isles, Western Europe, or the Caribbean, had any experience with rice culture at all. ... Rice...was plentiful along the entire West African coast... especially in the Senegal-Gambia region that supplied nearly 20 percent of the slaves imported into South Carolina."

More generally, slaves performed much of the skilled labor, both craft and agricultural, in the North and in the South. Slaves tilled the fields, and they made the farm equipment. They drove teams of draft animals, and they shod them. Slaves tricked out in livery posed on carriages to show off their owners' wealth, and they also made the carriages, repaired them, even designed them. The magnificent mansions that we associate with the high point of Southern plantation life were all built by slaves. Indeed, it is even the case that slaves were rented out by their owners to work in the new factories being established in America, alongside free Whites and a handful of free Blacks.

There is so much to tell about the institution of slavery that this tutorial could easily run to the length of many books, were I to allow it to do so. I will return to some of this material when I come to talk about the evolution of the historiography of slavery, but my principal purpose here is to call into question the exceptionalist claim that America was established as the embodiment of the idea of freedom, so let me restrict myself for a bit to that important question.

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