Sunlit Water

March 29, 2008


Filed under: Dating,Personal — by teofilo @ 1:51 pm

So things are going great with the new girlfriend (we’ve even changed our Facebook relationship statuses!), but there’s on little issue that makes things a little, um, odd: her first name is the same as my sister’s.  It’s a common name, so this isn’t really all that surprising, but it can make talking about one or the other of them (with, say, my mom) a bit confusing.


March 27, 2008

It Was Pretty Great

Filed under: Dating,Personal,Sex — by teofilo @ 11:01 am

Sometimes, if you wait long enough, you find exactly what you were looking for and everything works out just right.

March 25, 2008


Filed under: Culture,Language,Politics — by teofilo @ 9:07 pm

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying both HBO’s John Adams and Matthew Yglesias’s posts on the strategic issues involved in the Revolution taking the miniseries as a starting point (though I think there are some serious problems with his understanding of the British perspective).  With regard to the show as a whole, I think Jill Lepore’s take is basically accurate: the production values and attention to historical detail are first-rate, while the portrayal of Adams himself is pretty far off.  Not only is Paul Giamatti not much like Adams in any way, his role in events does seem a bit overemphasized.

That said, I think Lepore’s interpretation of the way events are portrayed is a little off, or at least not necessarily the only way to see it.  She sees the series as showing Adams as the hero who is always right, and his adversaries (Dickinson in the second episode, Franklin in the third) as villainous rogues out to ruin Adams and his plans.  While this is certainly how Adams sees things, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to conclude that this is how we the viewers are intended to see them as well.  It basically requires the assumption that, because the makers of the show decided to make a miniseries about Adams, his perspective is the one they want people to take.  While Adams certainly does come across as something of a hero with this assumption in mind, if you take it away there are many other ways to interpret the portrayal of events, and I see no particular reason to adopt it.  The rich detail naturally supports many alternative readings of the complex events shown, and as Yglesias points out in the first post linked above, Dickinson actually comes across rather well in the second episode if you listen to him from a neutral rather than a pro-Adams perspective.  Similarly, in the third episode, it’s easy to see how Adams feels betrayed by Franklin and uncomfortable with the decadence of the French aristocracy, but it’s totally clear that Franklin is right that the support of that aristocracy is crucial for the American cause (and it’s also fairly clear that Adams understands this).  Basically, my interpretation of the show is that we are definitely meant to sympathize with Adams, but not necessarily to agree with him.

It remains true, however, that Giamatti’s Adams is considerably more likable than the historical Adams, and while this may be a result of basing the series on McCullough’s book (which I haven’t read), it also seems pretty necessary to make him a suitably sympathetic character.  As I said to Ari, however, I don’t think this is necessarily a fatal flaw.  You just have to suspend disbelief a bit and treat Adams as a mostly fictional character who just happens to do all the things the real John Adams did.  It’s the other characters who really make the show come to life.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the language component, and I was interested to see that the “mixed” accents of most of the characters were deliberate, to portray the actual mix of dialects and the similarities between those of the British and American characters.  I had noticed that many of the Americans sound somewhat “British,” which I had assumed was partly due to most of them being played by British actors, but it seems that this is actually to obscure the usual sharp linguistic division between the British and the Americans in dramatizations of the Revolution.  This is certainly an admirable attitude to take, and I think they pull it off pretty well.  My only quibble is that it seems the attempt to create “mixed” accents has resulted primarily in making the Americans sound more British, while in my understanding of the English of this period (and I’m hardly an expert) is that it was actually more like modern American dialects.  That is, while the various dialects of England and America were more similar then than they are now, it’s actually the British dialects that have changed more in the intervening 200 years, so it’s more likely that the British would have sounded more like modern Americans than (as the show has it) that the Americans would sound more like modern Britons.  Like I say, though, I’m no expert on this, and there are of course limits to how much can be known about it anyway, so it’s really a very small point that doesn’t detract from a very good show.

March 23, 2008


Filed under: Culture,Urban Living — by teofilo @ 3:36 pm

And what better way to celebrate than with pictures of churches?

March 20, 2008


Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 10:08 pm

The Caribbean Sea is bounded to the north and east by a string of islands of varying sizes.  Starting from the Yucatan peninsula and heading northeast, the first islands one encounters are the large, mountainous Greater Antilles: Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico all in a line from west to east, and Jamaica somewhat to the south of them.  East of Puerto Rico begin the much smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles: first the Virgin Islands, then a string of very small islands, including Guadeloupe, Martinique, Dominica, Antigua, Nevis, and many others.  This string of islands curves to the south, to mark the rough boundary between the Caribbean and the Atlantic, then back to the west to include a few islands right off of the northern coast of South America that are nevertheless historically and culturally more like the islands to the north than the mainland to the south.  Although all of these islands were originally claimed by Spain, and in the early period of Spanish colonization they were settled and the indigenous inhabitants of many were killed off through disease and overwork, by the early seventeenth century Spain could no longer keep other European powers from settling on them, originally to gain bases from which to attack Spanish shipping, but later to try to extract whatever wealth could be gotten from the tropical soil.  The French, English, Dutch and Danish all managed to grab some islands in the long archipelago defining the Caribbean, and they spent much of the next 200 years fighting each other over them.  Since each nation settled whichever islands it could find, islands controlled by one were not necessarily adjacent or even near each other, and indeed, sometimes two countries settled different parts of the same island and, unable to dislodge each other, had to grudgingly share it.  Given this situation, islands changed hands often in the many wars in this period, and while the profits to be made in the Caribbean, especially after the development of sugar plantations using slave labor, could be immense, there was little security in settling on most islands.  If a rival power conquered an island, fortunes were instantly destroyed, and they were not easily recovered.  This didn’t stop the greedier and more adventurous types in Europe from trying their luck, of course, but it was a major gamble they were taking in setting themselves up on a small, unhealthy island very close to dangerous enemies.

Although most of the islands in the Caribbean belong to the one long archipelago, there are a few that are set slightly off of it.  Most of these, such as Jamaica, are inside the sea, which was an ideal location for piracy on the Spanish coast but was rather less secure once warfare became largely between the many countries that controlled the surrounding islands.  One island, however, is located just outside the archipelago, and was therefore much more secure from enemy attack than any other in the West Indies.  That island is Barbados.

Barbados is slightly east of the easternmost part of the great chain of islands, right around the point where the Leeward Islands to the northwest adjoin the Windward Islands to the southwest.  There are a number of advantages to this location, not the least of which, in the early seventeenth century, was its great distance from the centers of Spanish power, which enabled the English to take it easily and, given its secure position, hold it for the rest of the colonial period.  It is the only major island in the Lesser Antilles that never changed hands after being taken from the Spanish.

In this secure environment, the English initially tried a variety of crops, mainly using indentured servants for labor (much as they were doing in Virginia at around the same time).  After they abandoned tobacco, which was of a lower quality than the Virginia product and couldn’t compete with it, they dabbled in cotton and indigo before discovering sugar.

Sugar, unlike any of the other crops the Barbadians had tried, had the potential to be immensely profitable.  Since sugar cane is a tropical plant that can only grow in very warm, wet climates, there was no risk of being outproduced by the Virginians, and since there were few other English colonies in the Caribbean at this point, competition of any sort was no threat.  The trouble, however, was that sugar is an enormously labor-intensive crop, and growing and processing it in a tropical climate can be very dangerous, especially for Europeans unused to the weather and diseases.  It was very difficult to grow sugar with indentured servants, so the Barbados planters began to switch over to slave labor somewhat earlier than the Virginians, though for many of the same reasons.  The fact that Barbados is to the east of the other Caribbean islands, and therefore closer to Africa, reduced shipping costs for slave traders and made the island a particularly attractive center for the slave trade.  By the end of the seventeenth century, Barbados was covered with sugar plantations and was a major transshipment point for slaves bound for other English colonies, although its history of indentured labor left it with a much larger poor white population than any of the other more recently settled British islands.  Importation of indentured servants had effectively ended by this point, as Barbados was too small and crowded to offer them anything when they finished their indentures, so they went to the other islands (especially Jamaica) instead, where they mostly either died in the tropical climate or survived to become planters themselves.

Barbados was, then, one of the most thriving of the British colonies in the New World, and it was all thanks to sugar and slaves.  The profits from sugar didn’t stay confined to the planters there, however.  Since they were so devoted to their cash crop, by the eighteenth century nearly every arable inch of the island was devoted to sugar production, and there was nowhere to grow food.  Seeing an opportunity, the thrifty, industrious Puritans in New England began to build ships with their plentiful timber and use them to transport foodstuffs (mainly cattle and grain), which were all they could produce in their rocky, infertile land but which weren’t nearly valuable enough to ship to Europe, to Barbados to feed the planters and the slaves.  It was through this trade that New England began to become a major economic force among the colonies, though it still remained poorer than the other regions until the industrial revolution.  Later, the Virginians and Carolinians would try to get in on this lucrative trade as well, taking advantage of their more southerly location to save on shipping costs, but they were never able to take the majority of the trade away from the New Englanders.  Getting in early is always good.  South Carolina, however, which was settled mainly by planters from Barbados, did manage to find a lucrative market for its Indian slaves there.

The key point to take away from all this is that all of the North American colonies that would later become the United States, not just the southern ones, owed their economic success to slavery.  The northern colonies benefited a bit more indirectly from it than Virginia and South Carolina, but the Barbados sugar system they supplied was significantly more brutal than the tobacco and rice systems of their southern neighbors (which were hardly pleasant themselves, of course).

One of the oddities of slavery in Barbados, however, is that, while there were a few aborted attempts at slave rebellions in the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century saw no overt slave resistance at all, and the only actual rebellion in the colony’s history didn’t occur until 1816, when ideas about abolition were in the air.  This is in stark contrast to the other British sugar islands, which saw many revolts during this period.  This has often been attributed to the smaller size and less congenial topography of Barbados, as opposed to, say, Jamaica, with its mountains where slaves could run away to and form their own societies that the planters were never able to destroy.  Hilary Beckles, however, in his book Black Rebellion in Barbados: The Struggle against Slavery, 1627-1838, argues that this is a misleading position to take, and that the harshness of the slave system inspired rebellious inclinations among slaves everywhere, even in Barbados, where local conditions merely forced the slaves to adopt different tactics than elsewhere.

Beckles is an economic historian by training, and his book contains an interesting discussion of the transition from indentured servitude to slavery and the economic underpinnings of the slave system that developed in Barbados during the late seventeenth century.  The core of the book,  however, is a detailed chronological look at the various forms slave resistance in Barbados took over the long history of slavery on the island.  This includes accounts of the aborted slave rebellions in the seventeenth century, with emphasis on what the evidence from government investigations (taken at face value) reveals about slaves’ political awareness and military tactics.  This is followed by a discussion of the long peaceful period in the eighteenth century, which the planters largely attributed to the stepped-up security measures put in place after the planned revolt in 1692 was discovered.  Beckles is less inclined to believe the more complacent statements about how the slaves were kept totally under control by the militia and the very restrictive slave code, and the fact that the 1816 rebellion happened despite these measures supports his view, but he does grant that the slaves would have been aware that open rebellion was unlikely to succeed and shows that they nonetheless resisted the system in more subtle ways, generally by running away, either to other islands to gain complete freedom or to other plantations or towns on Barbados to hide for a while or try to pass as free blacks.  Some slaves also tried to gain redress for their grievances by complaining to their masters or (more often) the plantation managers, and in some cases they were able to secure the removal of particularly brutal overseers in this manner.  The common thread here is that slaves in Barbados, like slaves everywhere, did whatever they could to resist the dehumanizing system in which they lived, and the more subtle approaches they took were the result of pragmatic calculations about potential outcomes rather than internalized acceptance of their condition.

By the early nineteenth century, things had begun to change, not so much in Barbados itself as in Britain, where the abolitionist movement was gathering steam and prompting calls for the planters to at least improve the conditions of their slaves if they wouldn’t abolish slavery itself.  This led to a series of fights between the planter elite and (slightly) more progressive royal governors about specific ameliorative measures, most of which were eventually enacted.  The increasing scrutiny to which the slave system was being subjected did not go unnoticed by the slaves themselves, who began to express their resistance more openly, culminating in 1816 in the violent revolt known as “Bussa’s Rebellion” after its putative leader.  Beckles gives a very detailed account of this event, which was put down by the militia within two days after it had started.  Although unsuccessful, the revolt did show that the slaves were not inclined to passively accept their condition of subjection, which made the system harder for the planters to manage, and it was not long after, in 1838, that slavery was abolished in all British colonies.

Beckles ends the book here, but he notes that the spirit of resistance seen under slavery prefigured later populist movements among the black population of Barbados, which saw its living standards actually decline a bit after the abolition of slavery, when the planters, though they no longer literally held the black population in bondage, still dominated the island’s economy to the extent that the black majority was still in practical terms under their control.  This is a subject about which Beckles has since written other books (this one was published in 1984), but since I haven’t read those I don’t have anything more to say about it.

This is a pretty obscure book, not easy to find, so a recommendation is perhaps not as useful as for some of the other books I’ve reviewed.  I got it through Interlibrary Loan because I thought it might be useful for a project I’m working on.  It turned out not to be that useful, but I figured I’d read it as long as I had it, and I’m glad I did.  It’s short and readable, and contains a lot of interesting information not just about slave resistance in general but about specific events and people who are no less interesting for being rather obscure.  I’d recommend it, if you can find a copy and are particularly interested in this subject.


Filed under: Blogs — by teofilo @ 12:38 am

Megan’s new comment policy is interesting, but I’m not really sure how successful this sort of thing is likely to be.  While endless nitpicking of everything one says is one of the persistent irritations of the blogging life (and trust me, it is), in some respects I think that critical attitude is essential to both the nature and the appeal of the medium.  Exposing one’s ideas and opinions in a public medium like this can be a useful way of testing them and seeing if they stand up to scrutiny and challenge, and having to answer questions forces one to refine and amend those ideas to make them either more accurate or more persuasive, depending on the purpose of putting them out there in the first place.  Banning criticism if it doesn’t come with independent added value seems like it would discourage a lot of the most interesting comments one is likely to get, since those who think the deepest thoughts often live the least interesting lives (or so I would like to think, anyway).  And besides, if people can’t pick apart one’s ideas in comments, they can always link to them in posts on their own blogs and say whatever they damn well please.  So, I remain skeptical that this policy is likely to help Megan in the long run, though I’m not always sure what exactly she wants out of her blog, so maybe she’ll find the new situation more congenial.  From my perspective, it’s hard to say.

Anyway, comment policies aside, Megan still gets most things exactly right.

March 16, 2008

Psalm 151

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 12:30 am

Via Eric Rauchway, a fascinating post about the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.”  I had always assumed this song, which is indeed a major touchstone of my generation (apparently taken over from a slightly earlier generation through means that remain unclear to me), was just a typical Cohen song that caught on among young people somehow, and that the version I was familiar with was Cohen’s, but the actual story is much more complicated.  A quick look through YouTube allowed me to determine that I had apparently never heard the whole song before, and that I’m not even sure which cover of it the bits that I had heard came from.  The fact that I was nonetheless quite familiar with the tune and at least some of the lyrics shows just how completely this song has infiltrated the cultural consciousness of people my age.  Also, having now heard the full song, I am somewhat less impressed with it than I was before.

March 13, 2008

We Are All Virginians

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 12:45 am

One of the most pervasive concepts in American rhetoric is the idea that America is good.  Not just good as a result of the policies we are currently pursuing or the ideals upon which our country is supposedly founded, but inherently good, to the extent that the causality is often thought to go the other way: America isn’t good because it does good things, but the things America does are necessarily good because America does them.  Indeed, America is commonly presented as not just good, but uniquely so.  To the extent that this goodness is defined specifically, it is generally presented as a rather nebulous devotion to “freedom” as the bedrock of American ideals and ideology.

This idea of the inherent goodness of America is particularly prevalent in political rhetoric, but it pervades most other aspects of American culture as well.  This is particularly noticeable in popular conceptions of history (as opposed to the significantly more nuanced approaches taken by most academic historians) as presented by myriad cultural institutions from elementary schools to cable TV channels.  This version of American history, which is the only one the vast majority of Americans have ever encountered, focuses relentlessly on the positive and inspiring aspects of that history: the stirring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, the careful governmental balancing act of the Constitution, the righteous outrage of the abolitionist movement culminating in the Civil War and the end of slavery (which in this view is an unfortunate but somewhat peripheral stain on the otherwise shining beacon of hope that is America), right through to the heroic role of the US in saving the world in WWII and the bravery and heroism of the leaders of the civil rights movement.  Taken individually, there is more than a bit of truth in each of these characterizations of individual events, but adding them all together into a narrative of the steady progress of freedom results in a story that doesn’t even come close to being a full account of the history of America.

My particular interest in American history is mostly limited to the colonial period, so that’s the field in which I’ve done the most reading and acquired the fullest sense of the shortcomings of the popular conception of American history.  I leave it to others to fill in the comparable gaps in later periods.  The colonial period, however, given its importance in setting the course for the independent nation to follow, provides an ample supply of evidence for a fuller and much less inspiring picture of America.

I recently finished reading American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan.  This is basically a history of colonial Virginia, particularly focusing on the seventeenth century, but it is at the same time both more and less than that.  It is more in that Morgan explicitly uses the fact that Virginia was the first permanent English colony in America to portray its early history as setting important precedents for the development of what would become the US, precedents the results of which we are still living with today.  It is also less, however, in that Morgan’s intention in doing this is not to look at the history as a whole in a traditional manner (indeed, there is nothing like a straightforward chronology of important political events here) but to examine a particular nexus of ideas that, in his interpretation, developed out of the particular circumstances of colonial Virginia and played a key role in forging the patriotic ideology of America.   As the title suggests, the core of this nexus is the seemingly odd juxtaposition of a political ideology all about freedom and equality with an economic system based entirely on slavery.  Indeed, some of the prominent Virginians who fought in the American Revolution and set up the new republic explicitly described their actions as motivated by the desire to keep Virginia a free country and the fear of arbitrary British rule reducing it to slavery.

Obviously, there is a problem here.  If “all men are created equal,” in the words of one famous Virginia slaveowner, then how could a whole society, indeed, a society in which the concept behind those words was extremely popular and potent, be based on depriving some of those men (and women) of their freedom forever?  This is the question that Morgan seeks to answer in this book.

To do so, he goes back to the very beginning of Virginia, and even before, to the early promoters of colonialism in sixteenth-century England and their ideas.  Freedom plays a large role in the motivating ideology of men like the two Richard Hakluyts, Francis Drake, and Walter Raleigh who came up with the idea of colonies and made the first few failed attempts at setting some up.  In addition to solving England’s demographic and economic problems, they sought to bring freedom to the Indians, who were thought to be suffering grievously under the heel of the Spanish, who were widely regarded as exceptionally brutal slavemasters, and Catholics at that.  Surely, they thought, if England would just found a colony where the Indian (and black) slaves of the Spanish could be free from Spanish despotism they would rejoice in the opportunity to embrace benevolent English rule, with its traditions of representative governance and restrictions on the power of the monarch.  Freedom was an important value to Englishmen, and surely, the colonial promoters thought, English colonies would be much freer than those of the hated and decidedly unfree Spaniards.

This inspiring ideology didn’t last long when confronted with the harsh realities of actual colonialism, and all of the early attempts at founding colonies (most famously at Roanoke) foundered, largely because they were under the control of military men who had learned their trade in the brutal occupation of Ireland.  The inevitable violent conflicts with the local Indians, who liked their own freedom just fine and had no desire for the English variety, doomed all of the colonial attempts during the sixteenth century to failure.

By 1607, idealism was out in colonialist circles, and greed was in.  The Virginia Company, a for-profit corporation with many prominent gentlemen and peers among its shareholders, sent an expedition in that year to start a new colony in Virginia, and this one (eventually) worked out, though not soon enough to keep the company from going under.  The initial idea was to have the colonists find a profitable commodity for export that would generate revenue for the company to cover the immense costs of founding the colony; no one really knew what that commodity would be, but the Roanoke settlers had (accurately) described Virginia as a very fertile country teeming with nature’s bounty, so everyone was sure something would turn up.  Many thought precious metals or other mineral resources would be the key, but the colonists were also to try out various cash crops to see if any of those would work.  Hopes were high.

Results, however, again failed to live up to those hopes, and the colonists became embroiled in continual and extremely brutal warfare with the local Indians, on whom, however, they also depended for their food supplies, as they for some reason adamantly refused to grow enough food to feed themselves.  The result, repeated several times in the early years, was mass starvation, which is particularly incredible because Virginia is, indeed, a very fertile place.  Nonetheless, apparently, in Morgan’s telling, for cultural reasons which are rather complicated, the colonists did not work unless absolutely forced to by an autocratic leader such as Captain John Smith.

The starvation, combined with the more understandable diseases endemic to the tidal swamps where the Englishmen settled, made the mortality rate in Virginia absurdly high in the early years, and the colony only survived because of constant infusions of new settlers who came for various reasons.  After the collapse of the company and the reorganization of Virginia as a royal colony, the settlers finally hit upon a cash crop that could generate the kinds of profit margins they had been looking for: tobacco.  Not the variety grown and consumed by the local Indians, but a variety imported from the West Indies by John Rolfe, who is better known as the husband of Pocahontas.  This tobacco, though of lesser quality than the kind grown by the Spanish in the Caribbean, was nonetheless good enough to fetch high prices in England.  The Virginia colonists suddenly had a reason to work, and work they did.

The death rate continued to be immense, though from disease rather than starvation since as long as they were growing tobacco the colonists planted some corn as well.  Those who survived, however, could amass enormous fortunes during the boom years of the 1620s, before the profitability of tobacco attracted so many people to try growing it that the market became glutted and prices plummeted.  Those who managed to make their fortunes early, however, formed the nucleus of an elite class of wealthy planters that would dominate Virginia for the rest of its colonial history and beyond.

Plantation agriculture is, for us, so intimately linked to slavery that it would be natural to assume that these wealthy planters bought slaves to grow their tobacco as soon as they could afford to.  This isn’t what they did, however.  Although the first African slaves arrived in Virginia on a Dutch ship in 1619, and there continued to be slaves in Virginia from then on, the number of slaves was actually very small in the early period and remained that way for many years afterward.  The planters who made their fortunes in the 1620s grew their tobacco themselves, and once they could afford help they bought white indentured servants rather than slaves.  Given the high mortality and the much lower cost of servants, who only served for a few years, this made a lot of economic sense.  In the early days, in fact, many wealthy planters started out as servants who managed to survive until their terms of service expired and then acquired some land and grew a fortune in tobacco on their own.  After a while, however, especially once the bottom dropped out of the tobacco market, only those who already had extensive wealth and many servants could afford to keep going, and over time Virginia developed an underclass of former servants who couldn’t afford land in the better areas and were forced to either move to the frontier, where they came into conflict with the remaining Indians, or rent land from the wealthy planters and eke out a living that way.  Some ended up going back into servitude.

As long as mortality remained high, most servants died before becoming free and the underclass remained small.  Around the middle of the seventeenth century, however, mortality declined precipitously for obscure reasons and the colony quickly had a big problem: too many disgruntled former servants, with no good options for making a livelihood.  Also, like all free men in Virginia, they were armed.

The rich planters, who dominated the colony’s local government in both the elected House of Burgesses and the governor-appointed Council, basically ignored the problem and ran roughshod over the poor.  Corruption was widespread and immense, and the tax burdens on small planters were crushing.  Things finally reached a breaking point in 1676, when a wealthy planter named Nathaniel Bacon, a recent immigrant of substantial wealth and position in England, became disgruntled with his lack of position within the colony, which was run by nouveau-riche upstarts whom he considered his inferiors, and rallied many of the small planters to kill Indians in defiance of the colonial government.  After their thirst for Indian blood was sated, the rebels turned on the governor, who fled, and burned Jamestown to the ground.  Only Bacon’s sudden death allowed things to settle down.

Things remained somewhat the same for a while after Bacon’s Rebellion, but there were subtle changes afoot which would remake the colony’s society in significant ways.  Chief among these was the fact that the decrease in mortality and the increase in the efficiency of the slave trade finally made slaves a better buy than servants, and the rich planters accordingly began to switch to buying slaves.  This took the pressure off of the freed servant problem, since the number of servants being freed each year dwindled to a trivial level by 1700.  Slaves, of course, never became free, and therefore fulfilled the same role in the workforce that servants had but didn’t cause the same social problems.  They did, of course, cause new and different social problems, predominantly the constant risk that they would rebel, and to fend off this threat the rich planters needed the poor white tenants and smallholders as they never had before.  They were the militia that would be needed to put down any uprising.

Thus, the rich planters who still dominated the House of Burgesses and Council changed their political tactics.  Instead of squeezing the poor whites to enrich themselves, they lowered their taxes and sought their votes.  They needed to create an alliance of whites against the increasing numbers of blacks, and they got it.

Racism was a key element of this strategy, and it was not hard to get the poor whites to hate the slaves because of their race.  Indeed, in some ways it was as simple as transferring their longstanding hatred of Indians to encompass all non-white groups.

Another key element in the rich men’s strategy, however, was the adoption of political ideas that had become fashionable in England in the wake of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, ideas that emphasized the importance of individual liberty and representative government as bulwarks against despotism.  In Virginia, this was the beginning of the idea of democracy as a political ideal.  There was, of course, the matter of all the slaves in the colony to deal with, but the theorists in England were by no means opposed to slavery as long as it was confined to the poor, who were still considered dangerous and in need of control.  Indeed, some theorists of liberty even proposed schemes for enslaving the poor to contribute to the wealth of the free men who properly ran things.

Here, the Virginians were already a step ahead of their intellectual role models.  Enslavement of the British poor was unlikely to happen, but in Virginia the poor were already enslaved!  And, indeed, by redefining “poor” to exclude the free whites, no matter their status, to be full participants in the representative government of the colony, the planters could solidify a social order of the sort that the theorists they read could only dream of.  And with the added element of racism, it became easy to identify the poor and keep them enslaved, lending the system a much-needed stability.

This is the society that produced Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and many other prominent advocates of freedom during the revolutionary era.  This is what they meant by freedom.  And this is where America comes from.

There’s more to it than that, of course, and different things were going on in the northern colonies that also contributed to the ideology of freedom that defined America.  Virginia played a crucial role in making the Revolution happen, however, and the strong connection between the rhetoric of liberty and the practice of slavery is important in understanding the course the new country would take.

Not quite what you learn in school or see on TV, but there it is.  History is rarely as nice as one might hope, and when you take away the assumption that America is good, American history looks pretty bad indeed.

March 3, 2008


Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 11:04 pm

Yes, it’s time once again for a post about how impressed I am at finding that a collection of primary sources has been made freely accessible online.  This one’s a considerably bigger deal than the previous ones, though: the complete (well, not yet, but eventually) Calendar of State Papers Colonial.  There’s a lot of other stuff at that site as well, but some of it (the Calendar of State Papers Domestic, for instance) is available by subscription only.

Blog at