American history can be seen as a hive for historiography. The defining events have been interpreted in vastly different ways by various interest groups and historians. One of the great challenges is to use the primary sources to see through the various myths which have evolved in the popular American imagination. It is critical to shift from the traditional Eurocentric paradigm in order to form a complete understanding of American history. Consequently, inclusion is a vital, yet sorely overlooked, theme. The forced amalgamation of four continents must be the backdrop to an independent inquiry. Similarly the theme of liberty, sacred within the American psyche, must be seen through correct historical context. The parasitic relationship of freedom and unfreedom is a central element in deciphering what the forefathers understood liberty to mean. Similarly, when researching grandiose themes like freedom, the question must be asked; what kind of freedom and for whom does it apply? An honest and inclusive study into American history can reveal new dimensions concerning the colonial, revolutionary and civil war periods.
The roots of modern America are entrenched in fifteenth century Europe. The popular myth that America was founded by peaceful settlers seeking religious freedom ignores several key facts. Although there were groups attempting to escape religious persecution, this motive is hardly adequate to explain the powerful surge of European contact. A more plausible and practical explanation is greed and imperial rivalry. What began as a chance discovery in the age of exploration soon escalated into an imperial tug-of-war. There were varying reasons for Europeans to come to America, however, the single greatest driving force was the desire to colonise the new world and harness her resources.
The first permanent English settlement in North America was created in 1607 with the establishment of Jamestown. It is with rose colored glasses that many Americans recall this event. The myth of Jamestown can be summarised as a combination of hard work and friendly Indians creating a successful colony. The slightly bizarre fact of the matter is that Jamestown’s earliest white colonist seemed to prefer to starve to death rather than occupy themselves with strenuous work. Distinguished colonial historian Edmund Morgan attributes this fatally absurd decision to the English paradigm of thought concerning work. The English conceptualisation of colonialism in the new world was shaped largely by the Spanish experience. Consequently, the settlers expected to find natural abundance and a source of cheap labour in the indigenous population to help exploit it.
The reality of life in Jamestown was in stark contrast to the expectations carried by her phantasm charged founders. The incongruous collection of specialist gold miners, artisans, wood cutters and farmers were curiously slow in coming to the realisation that the local Indian population would not provide a suitable work force. Morgan concludes that the introduction of black slavery was seen to be the solution to Virginia’s labour crisis. This conclusion, however, disturbs another myth concerning colonial America; that racism was an already existing notion which domineered in the new world from the beginning. If slavery was only introduced gradually as a solution to an economic problem, the implication is that racism was a learned attitude of the southern colonies not a pre-existing condition.
It is important to realise that the common association of black with slavery and white with freedom was gradually developed. Freedom, as we understand it today, was not the lot of most Englishmen in America. Eric Foner estimates that in the seventeenth century “nearly two-thirds of English settlers came as indentured servants, who voluntarily surrendered their freedom for a specific time (usually five to seven years) in exchange for passage to America.” When the first Africans arrived in America in 1619 several of them were free and some were even assigned land. Many of the earliest Africans in America appear to have been servants as opposed to slaves. The first documented sentence of slavery doesn’t appear until 1640. Even in this situation, however, the “grounds for this harsh sentence presumably lay in the fact that he was non-Christian rather than in the fact that he was physically dark.” It can be deduced, therefore, that southern racism, as we now understand it, evolved gradually between 1650 and 1750.
It is clear that European prejudice is an inadequate answer as to how a sophisticated system of racism and slavery developed in America. It does not appear that racism was the reason Africans were brought to America and enslaved. It is, however, plausible that racism was a specifically developed and nurtured paradigm, created to justify the existence and expansion of African slavery. So the question still remains why did the southern colonies change from a society with slaves to a slave society? There is, of course, no single answer to this complex question, however, a culmination of social economic and political factors indicate that slavery became an increasing attractive alternative to white indentured servitude.
Whilst Jamestown had a notoriously high mortality rate during its earliest period, by the last quarter of the seventeenth century this trend had significantly stabilised. Consequently, southern planters were discovering that a lifelong slave was a more profitable investment than a temporal servant. Significantly, England lost her monopoly on the slave trade during this same period. The opening of the slave market caused increased competition and eventually prices fell. So it can be seen that black slavery was in many ways a sensible economic alternative to white servitude.
The reliance of the southern colonies on agrarian production, especially rice, tobacco and later cotton, made access to labour a key concern for land owners. Following the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, however, fewer Englishmen were willing to become indentured servants in the new world. Servitude in England did not mean the same thing as it did in America. An English master had obligations to his servant which were protected by the law. In Virginia, by contrast, the distinction between servitude and slavery was notoriously vague. News of this harsh treatment trickled back to England and “the supply of English servants declined sharply at just the time that the demand for labor was increasing in many of the colonies.” Part of the reason for black slavery taking root in the South after 1660 can be traced to the scant availability of white indentured servants.
There were, however, social factors also which combined with the economic incentives in fuelling the change from a society with slaves to a slave society. Following the successful harvest of tobacco crops, class lines developed very quickly in Virginia. Small farmers found it increasingly difficult to compete against large land owners. The situation was further exasperated by the corrupt policies of the governor, William Berkley. The plight of small farmers was made bleak by Berkley’s unjust land distribution, heavy taxes on tobacco and falling prices due to overproduction. Berkley’s refusal to upset the peaceful relationship he enjoyed with the local Indians by allowing white settlement in their lands further enraged many land-hungry colonists. Eventually this list of grievances manifested themselves in the form of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Led by wealthy planter, Nathaniel Bacon, a group of small farmers, landless men, indentured servants and even some slaves marched on Jamestown, plundered and burnt it.
This act of defiance by the giddy multitude sent shockwaves through the South. It became clear that former indentured servants, small farmers and the landless must be given some opportunities to compete in the market for otherwise they can become dangerous and revolutionary. English liberty demanded that freemen be afforded the chance to participate in the economy and thus control their own destiny. This period produced a landmark shift in American history. The authorities actively sought to increase liberty. There is, however, a direct correlation between the increase of freedom for whites and the increase of unfreedom for Africans and Indians. Many whites were able to secure land and farming benefits as a result of new aggressive policies dispossessing Indians. Black slavery was rapidly increased in order to reduce the need for white indentured servants who, once free, could become rebellious or revolutionary. It seems clear, within this context, that references to liberty in the colonial period originally meant only for a select group of whites but was later expanded to include all white males.
The development of a slave society in the south can be interpreted as a conscience choice, at least on behalf of the lawmakers. The laws and court decisions between 1650 and 1750 show a clear progression from vague, individualistic decisions to concentrated, explicit racism. Many slaves successfully represented themselves in court as there were no laws in early seventeenth century Virginia that defined the rights, or lack of rights, of blacks. In 1641, for example, “John Graweere appeared before the court, asking for permission to buy the freedom of his child in order that he could raise the child as a Christian.” The fact that the court sided with Graweere shows the racial flexibility of the time. This was a trend, however, which would not continue.
By the late seventeenth century several laws were introduced in the South which contributed to the development of a slave society. Africans were banned from owning white servants, interracial sex became a serious crime and an African could not strike a white under any circumstances. Other laws were introduced to make freedom more difficult to obtain for Africans. Accepting the Christian faith was no longer an avenue to freedom. One of the more chilling new racial laws was Virginia’s 1669 ‘Act Concerning the Casual Killing of Slaves’. This law stated that a white could not be convicted of killing a slave as he could not be presumed to destroy his own property. This law is indicative of the racial binary which was developing in the South. White was becoming synonymous, not only with freedom, but with logic and reason also. Similarly, the mindset was becoming firmly established that blacks were primitive and naturally suited to manual labour.
Part two will look at popular mythology in American history concerning the revolutionary period. Stay tuned.