The "paradox" of American freedom and slavery


The historian Edmund Morgan

[Old student notes on the early United States.]


Quoting Edmund Morgan, in his famous 1972 article Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox: “The rise of liberty and equality in this country was accompanied by the rise of slavery. That two such contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over a long period of our history, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is the central paradox of American history. The challenge, for a colonial historian at least, is to explain how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day.” I’m not sure it’s as paradoxical as he thinks, but it certainly is interesting and calls for explanation.


(The paradox is actually more broadly applicable: the Europe that produced the Enlightenment, which upheld human freedom, reason, and dignity, was the Europe that produced the slave trade and plantation slavery. In part, this paradox is resolvable by the simple fact that modern society contains many different tendencies, some of them mutually contradictory. The social and cultural circles that produced Enlightenment thought were hardly the same circles that brutalized and enslaved Africans. But more interestingly, the commercial prosperity that helped make the Enlightenment possible was itself, in part, made possible by New World slavery and the slave trade. So even the Enlightenment was morally tainted in its origins.)

Poignant irony:

American reliance on slave labor must be viewed in the context of the American struggle for a separate and equal station among the nations of the earth. At the time the colonists announced their claim to that station they had neither the arms nor the ships to make the claim good. They desperately needed the assistance of other countries, especially France, and their single most valuable product with which to purchase assistance was tobacco, produced mainly by slave labor. So largely did that crop figure in American foreign relations that one historian has referred to the activities of France in supporting the Americans as “King Tobacco Diplomacy,” a reminder that the position of the United States in the world depended not only in 1776 but during the span of a long life time thereafter on slave labor. To a very large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.

But not only their independence. Also, perhaps, at least in Virginia, the limited democracy that existed in the late eighteenth century. Morgan points out that almost up to the end of the seventeenth century in Virginia, social tensions between the ‘rabble’ and the large landowners continually threatened to break out into open conflict, as in Bacon’s Rebellion (1676). The problem was that as indentured servants (usually young men) kept being imported to work on plantations, rising numbers of poor ex-servants who lacked access to land swelled the colony. They lacked land because of pressure from Indians on the borders, competition from other ex-servants, and the rich’s monopoly over ‘safe’ land. The roving population of poor white bachelors, constantly increasing (partly because of longer lifespans), posed a threat to the social order. Gradually, therefore, a turn to Black slavery occurred, as planters found that slaves were easier to control, cheaper in the long run, and solved the dangerous reliance on white indentured servitude. As Virginia imported fewer and fewer white laborersand at the same time the colony took ever more land from Indiansit became easier for (the fewer) poor whites to acquire plots of land, which stabilized society. With the rising numbers of small landholders, representative government became deeply ingrained in the social fabric, and the ideology spread of the rights and powers of independent, property-owning yeoman farmers, the rights and liberties of Englishmen. Thus, “it was slavery that enabled Virginia to nourish representative government in a plantation society, slavery that transformed the [royalist] Virginia of Governor Berkeley to the [republican] Virginia of Jefferson, slavery that made the Virginians dare to speak a political language that magnified the rights of freemen, and slavery, therefore, that brought Virginians into the same commonwealth political tradition with New Englanders. The very institution that was to divide North and South after the Revolution may have made possible their union in a republican government.”

Also, of course, the presence of Blacks as a degraded race at the bottom of the social structure raised the relative status of poor whites and thereby encouraged them to have a stake in the social order, to identify with other whites however wealthy they were. It’s the “wages of whiteness.” Racial differences confuse(d) and counteract(ed) class differences.


In short, for more than one reason, the existence of slavery helped make possible white male democracy (or relative democracy). I should also note that one of the reasons for (some of) the Founders’ desire to separate from Great Britain was that Britain wasn’t sufficiently friendly toward the existence of American slaveryjust as it fought against American attempts to expand west of the Appalachians at the expense of the natives. Americans wanted more control over their own affairs, in part so as to have fewer constraints in their oppression of others. That was an important element of what “freedom” meant to them—the freedom to oppress and exploit—just as it’s essential to the contemporary conservative notion of freedom (the freedom of capitalists from taxes, government regulation, and labor unions, which is to say the freedom to oppress and exploit more easily).


Meanwhile, the staggering wealth that slavery produced in the nineteenth century contributed overwhelmingly to Northern commercialism, dynamism, industry, wealth, and ultimately, because of all this, “democracy.” Slavery wasn’t some aberration or economically inefficient anachronism, as conservatives today sometimes see it (so as to pretend capitalism isn’t blood-drenched in its very inception): it was essential to the rise of the United States, no less essential than the genocide of the natives. [See the New York Times’ 1619 Project.]

Recent Posts

See All

Thanks for submitting!