Sunlit Water

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.



  1. This is an absolutely spot-on review of Morgan’s book. I know I’m not supposed to say anything about getting a PhD in history, but (stuffs sock in mouth to keep from saying more) mmm, mmmm, mmm.

    Comment by ari — March 13, 2008 @ 1:30 am |Reply

  2. It’s more of a summary than a review, really. My original idea for this post was much more ambitious, but it was getting late and I was getting tired so I just went with this. But thanks.

    Comment by teofilo — March 13, 2008 @ 10:17 am |Reply

  3. Review, summary, have you read the TLS or NY Times book review lately? Nearly all reviews are summaries, these days. And you’ve got plenty of analysis: good stuff.

    Comment by ari — March 13, 2008 @ 10:43 am |Reply

  4. I haven’t spent that much time reading about Virginia, but you’ve inspired me to pick up Webb’s 1676 The End of American Independence, which has been sitting on the shelf for a number of years. Is it any good?

    Comment by CharleyCarp — March 13, 2008 @ 5:25 pm |Reply

  5. I haven’t read it, but I get the impression that it’s strongly pro-Bacon.

    Comment by teofilo — March 13, 2008 @ 5:33 pm |Reply

  6. Anti-Berkeley isn’t a problem for me, and the opening pages aren’t anti-Native.

    Comment by CharleyCarp — March 14, 2008 @ 5:58 am |Reply

  7. Somehow I doubt that’s going to carry through the whole thing. If there’s one thing Bacon definitely was, it’s anti-Native.

    Comment by teofilo — March 14, 2008 @ 10:58 am |Reply

  8. It occurs to me that the line of thought I introduced at the beginning of the post, which I didn’t follow through on as much as I had intended because it was late and I was tired, is pretty relevant to the Reverend Wright controversy.

    Comment by teofilo — March 14, 2008 @ 11:57 pm |Reply

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