American Elephants


Slavery in America, and How it Happened. by The Elephant's Child

I am reading An Empire of Wealth by John Steele Gordon, and I am finding the book immensely rewarding.  It is history leavened by the economics that moved events, and I recommend it.

In Virginia, on July 30, 1619, the first representative assembly in America met in a church at Jamestown. Three weeks later, a Dutch ship sailed into the Chesapeake, the captain intent on selling his cargo of human beings to the planters who were desperate for laborers to work the expanding tobacco fields.  The men on board had come from Africa where they had been sold to the captain.

Yet, Gordon explains, they were not quite slaves. The planters purchased their indentures, not the men.  When they finished their term of servitude, they would be free, just as English indentured servants were.  Even later in the 1680s, indentured servants outnumbered slaves. An indentured servant cost about 15 pounds to purchase four years of his labor. A slave cost 25 to 30 pounds but was bound for life.  Gordon went on to make some important points:

It is hard for us, who are the beneficiaries of so much hindsight, to understand, but people in the seventeenth century did not regard slavery as a moral issue. It would be the middle of the eighteenth century before the idea that slavery was inherently and ineluctably immoral took hold.  Once born, that idea then spread very quickly throughout both Europe and America.  At least it did among the nonslaveholding parts of society, for economic self-interest is always a severe impediment to clear thinking on the moral and political aspects of an issue.

In the seventeenth century, when most people felt one’s “station in life” was determined by God, slavery was regarded as nothing more than a personal misfortune, not the abomination we see it as today.  Nor were slavery and race, at least at first, intertwined.  In the middle of the seventeenth century a black man named Anthony Johnson owned a 250 acre tobacco plantation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and at least one slave.  He regarded himself, and indeed he was largely regarded by his neighbors as an equal.  He had no hesitation asking the court to enforce his rights when his slave ran away, and enforced they were.

But as the number of black slaves increased steadily both absolutely and as a percentage of the population, while tobacco began to be less profitable per unit of labor as the market reached saturation, attitudes changed.  Strictures on the activities of slaves, and of free blacks as well, increased as the fear of rebellion and the economic necessity to get more work out of the slaves increased.  By the beginning  of the eighteenth century blacks could not assemble in groups of more than four and needed written permission to leave their home plantations.  Patrols enforced the new strictures.  Discipline increased as well.  One “unhappy effect of owning many Negroes” planter William Byrd wrote, “is the necessity of being severe.  Numbers make them insolent, and then foul means must do what fair will not,”

“Racism,” Gordon added, “became a cancer in the body politic and would cost much blood and much treasure to excise.” Slavery became the answer to a chronic American economic problem — a shortage of labor.

Seems helpful to understand the accurate history of how it came about, though it doesn’t make it any more palatable. Perhaps we can forego dismissing all of the Founding Fathers because some of them owned slaves.

People forget that the Moslem nations of the Mediterranean conducted raids into Europe and England to capture slaves. Before the introduction of the full-rigged ship, ships were propelled by galley slaves, often of enemy nations.  American Indians owned slaves, and some tribes  like the Kwakiutl in the Northwest conducted large slaving raids down the Western Coast.


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