The influence of Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia is inarguable. For such a lean volume it casts a long shadow upon our understandings of colonial Virginia, the development of slavery in the American South, the relationship between racism and equality, and a variety of other interpretative problems large and small. Scholars since the book’s publication have revised and extended its arguments—into questions of gender and class consciousness—and more than a few have sought to topple its conclusions but Morgan’s central contention that “[r]acism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to the equality that English republicans had declared to be the soul of liberty” remains more or less intact. During my graduate education, at both the master’s and doctoral levels, Morgan’s arguments have served as the starting point in many a seminar meeting’s discussion of America’s long history of racial inequality. Few interpretations of any historical question can claim such sustained influence.
The question I pondered, as I reread American Slavery, American Freedom for this essay, is simple: why? Why has Morgan’s interpretation of colonial Virginia survived, despite the many shifts in the historiographical winds over the last thirty-eight years, when many other powerfully argued interpretations have withered and died? What gives this book its continuing appeal to the historical profession?
The most straightforward answer is that, broadly speaking, Morgan is right. The link between the expansion of freedom for Americans of European descent to the exploitation of those of African descent is a key theme in American history, with its origins in the entrenchment of racial slavery in seventeenth and eighteenth century Virginia. This doesn’t explain as much as we might hope, however. Correctness has never prevented a historical interpretation from falling out of favor.
What, then, explains the continuing appeal of this particular book and its interpretations? I would argue it has a lot to do with the sort of historian Edmund Morgan was and his place in the profession.
Edmund Morgan was a “consensus historian” par excellence. It was he, of course, who sounded the death knell of the progressive, or “Beardian,” interpretation of the American Revolution and the Constitution. Morgan’s credentials as an intellectual historian, with works like The Birth of the American Republic and The Stamp Act Crisis, cannot be questioned. His affection for Virginia’s colonial and Revolutionary gentry is obvious. The most intransigent devotee of Founders Chic and the most Whigish interpretations of the founding of the United States, then, must take what Morgan has to say seriously.
What Morgan has to say in American Slavery, American Freedom is his own peculiar version of a conflict history, however, and one which can please even your most dedicated neo-progressive. In colonial Virginia, breezy English dreams of liberation and easy fortune gave way to a fevered American reality of disease, exploitation, and death. Seventeenth-century Virginia was conflict-riven with rich against poor, freeman against servant and slave, white against black and red. Groping through all this chaos produced a solution to these problems—broad-based white freedom linked tightly with total bondage for blacks. This made Virginia’s soil fertile for republicanism because the Old Dominion had solved one of republicanism’s greatest theoretical problems—how to prevent the poor of the society from degrading a virtuous republic with their slothful indulgence. In a society where this looming threat was perpetually excluded from the body public, the republic could be preserved in perpetuity. Race closed the circle by creating a clear visual mark between citizen and slave.
The terrible strength of the link between race and structural inequality is made especially powerful by Morgan’s crisp prose:
The English had come to view their poor almost as an alien race, with inbred traits of character that justified plans for their enslavement or incarceration in workhouses. Almost but not quite. It required continual denunciations from a battery of philosophers and reformers; it even required special badges, to proclaim the differentness of the poor to the undiscerning, who might otherwise mistake them for ordinary men. In Virginia neither badges nor philosophers were needed. It was not necessary to pretend or to prove that the enslaved were a different race, because they were. Anyone could tell black from white, even if black was actually brown or red. And as the number of poor white Virginians diminished, the viscous traits of character attributed by Englishmen to their poor could in Virginia increasingly appear to be exclusive heritage of blacks.
There is a great tragic sweep to Morgan’s assessment of this society. The embrace of slavery was unthinking; stumbling in the dark, Virginia’s planter class fumbled upon a solution to their woes without really considering it. One may, perhaps, consciously embrace republicanism but certainly not racism and slavery—at worst, white Virginians were embracing the cold amoral logic of the labor market. This tragedy—this linking of white equality with black inequality—is the American dilemma. As Morgan rightfully notes, “Racism became an essential if unacknowledged, ingredient of the republican ideology that enabled Virginians to lead the nation,” and that sour ingredient can still very much be tasted in the twenty-first century America of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.
The one great weakness of Morgan’s analysis of the origins of Virginia and its consequences is his emphasis on the unthinking or unconscious nature of this tragedy. Here I must disagree and follow Anthony Parent and others in suggesting there was nothing unthinking about the gentry’s embrace of African slavery. One does not simply wake up one morning in a slave society. Building such an interlocking economic, legal, and cultural institution takes a determined, conscious effort. The Old Dominion was a society born out of ashes—of the Native world that preceded it, of the bodies of the white servants that midwifed it, and of the African slaves that built its prosperity. The great planters of Virginia stoked the fires that burnt these ashes until they were forced to put down their torch at Appomattox.
In the face of this scholarly achievement, however, my disagreement is a mere quibble. Morgan, in American Slavery, American Freedom, crafted a history for all seasons—able to please the intellectual historian right along with social and economic historians. In the end it is difficult to disagree with Alan Taylor’s assessment that Morgan produced “the twentieth century’s best historical work on American origins.” It is likely that this masterpiece, with all its clarity and insight, will continue to be assigned to generations of students well beyond the here and now.
 Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975), 386. For two excellent recent(ish) treatments of seventeenth and eighteenth century Virginia that expand and revise Morgan’s conclusions see: Katherine M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Anthony S. Parent Jr., Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003). Kathleen Brown’s reflection in Common-Place on American Slavery, American Freedom is indispensable in contextualizing Morgan’s classic. For two very recent and sharply critical counter-arguments, see John C. Coombs, “Beyond the ‘Origins Debate’: Rethinking the Rise of Virginia Slavery,” in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, ed. Douglas Bradburn and John C. Coombs (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 239–278; William A. Pettigrew, “Transatlantic Politics and the Africanization of Virginia’s Labor Force, 1688-1712,” in ibid., 279–299.
 Peter Novick’s description of “consensus history” serves our purposes here well enough. Consensus historians stressed “attention on what had united Americans rather than what had divided them.” Progressive historians, of course, stressed division and class conflict. The generation of consensus historians included luminaries such as Morgan, Daniel Boorstin, Louis Hartz, and (perhaps) Richard Hofstadter. See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 320-360, 333. (There are some extremely amusing quotations from an early review of The Birth of the Republic on p. 336.)
 It was the next generation of scholars, the “republican school” of Bernard Bailyn and his students, who would put the final nail in the coffin of dominance of the “Beardian” interpretation. For Morgan’s influence on the republican school, see Gordon Wood, “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 23, no. 1 (1966): 3-32.
 For an example of this affection see the following description of Jefferson and his generation of Virginia gentry towards the end of AS/AF. Morgan argues that despite their status as slaveholders the Old Dominion’s planters “displayed none of the boisterous passions, none of the lineaments of wrath, and certainly none of the disposition for tyranny that those conditions were supposed to induce.” See Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, 375-376. Other examples of his respect for the gentry class abound throughout the text.
 One would not have predicted in, say, 1959 that Morgan would ever write such a history. The idea of a conflict and inequality being a central theme of American history is not obvious in his earliest works. Compare his classic take down of the “Beardian” interpretation: “What we have done in our social and economic interpretations of the Revolution is to project into eighteenth-century America a situation which existed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when property and the means of production became concentrated in the hands of a few, when liberty if it was to exist at all had to get along not only without the aid of property but in opposition to it” to this quotation from AS/AF, “Virginians knew that the members of this class [poorer whites] were not in fact equal, either in property or in virtue, just as they knew that Negroes, mulattoes, and Indians were not one and the same. But the forces which dictated that Virginians see Negroes, mulattoes, and Indians as one also dictated that they see large and small planters as one. Racism became essential, if unacknowledged, ingredient of the republican ideology that enabled Virginians to lead the nation.” See Edmund S. Morgan, “The American Revolution: Revisions in Need of Revising,” William & Mary Quarterly, Third Series 14, no. 1 (1957): 13; Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, 386.
 Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, 385-386. I have combined two separate paragraphs in the above quotation.
 On the “unthinking nature” of the move from servant to slave labor Morgan argues, for example, that “[t]he planters who bought slaves instead of servants did not do so with any apparent consciousness of the social stability to be gained thereby.” (italics are mine) See ibid., 308. Other examples are sprinkled throughout the text.
 For the quotation, see ibid., 386.
 As Parent argues “[t]owards the end of the seventeenth century, an elite evolved, consolidated its power, and fixed itself as an extensive land- and slave holding class.” In the end, then, “[t]he choice of slavery was deliberate, odious, and foul.” See Parent, Foul Means, 3, 265-266.
 I would suggest it is Morgan’s admiration for the better angels of the gentry, particular in the Revolutionary generation, which causes him to stress the seeming unconscious shift to enslaved labor. It is difficult to not give the benefit of the doubt to the men who led the Continental Army and wrote the Virginia Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence.
 Alan Taylor, Writing American History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 229.