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.