The American Dilemma

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.[1] 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.[2] It was he, of course, who sounded the death knell of the progressive, or “Beardian,” interpretation of the American Revolution and the Constitution.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.”[11] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.)

[3] 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 QuarterlyThird Series 23, no. 1 (1966): 3-32.

[4] 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.

[5] 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/AFVirginians 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.

[6] Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, 385-386. I have combined two separate paragraphs in the above quotation.

[7] 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.

[8] For the quotation, see ibid., 386.

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] Alan Taylor, Writing American History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 229.

16 responses

  1. Well written as always Roy. I’ve always wondered if, “The Labor Problem at Jamestown, 1607-18” wasn’t an earlier attempt by Morgan to address what you call “unthinking or unconscious nature of this tragedy”? I’m not really sure that it is but there seems to be something Morgan is reaching for in that article that he can’t quite seem to resolve. Just a passing thought.


    • I think much of that article got incorporated into the text of AS/AF. I could be wrong.

      Personally, after re-reading the book I think Morgan really did believe that the shift was unknowing or, at worst, part of the logic of the labor market.

      Thanks for the great comment, Jason.

  2. Great post, Roy. There’s a reason Morgan won March Madness. And it’s nice to see someone discuss AS, AF without exaggerating the role of Bacon’s Rebellion.

    • Thanks for the comment, Nic. I think the role of Bacon’s Rebellion in Morgan’s argument is over sold by many interpreters. There is a lot more going in the shift from servant to slave labor than just the aftermath of the Rebellion.

      • I’m not sure what you mean by writing “Morgan’s argument is over sold by many interpreters.” Morgan makes the argument. If there “is a lot more going in the shift from servant to slave labor” it would be useful for you to help us understand it by citing the sources. I would note that Frederick Douglass reiterates the substance of Morgan’s argument that the shift to slavery created a safety net for white 3rd Estate migrants to North America, in his work My Bondage, My Freedom.

  3. Roy, nice homage to a great historian and a great book!

    I just reread the book, in deciding which chapters to assign in a survey. You’re absolutely right to point out the weaknesses of the “unthinking” decision thesis- which (as you write) recent historiography has shown to be unrealistic.

    But did Morgan really think that the transition to African slavery was “unthinking”? AS, AM is fascinatingly frustrating on this incredibly significant point. As I read it, Morgan straddled the fence there. But if I could straddle a fence like that as eloquently as he did, well… I’d be happy.


  4. Thanks for the comment, Michael.

    I think you are right on how frustrating Morgan is on the thinking/unthinking issue. When I was rereading AS/AF I wrote the following on the Facebook: “After rereading AS/AF I am amazed and how much Morgan mastered the stylish equivocation. So much beautiful fudging the point.”

    I think that pretty much sums it up. Morgan is able to dodge a couple of tricky interpretative issues because of his fantastic prose.

  5. That’s a really important and troubling observation about historical work in general. I suspect it’s not something restricted to Morgan; beautiful fudging is what makes a lot of great work great. There might be something more generous to say about this as a methodology, though. I think you guys are a bit hasty to draw such a neat distinction between conscious and unconscious action, especially group action. This is obviously an enormous historical, sociological, psychological problem. “Fudging” the distinction is one way of transcending a flawed dichotomy without getting into an enormous theoretical digression. Of course, that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t get into that problem in other places, in other ways. I’d go so far as to say that this problem of “consciousness” in historical processes is *the* central question for historical theory.

  6. I think Tom is right about the Morgan fudging a flawed binary. Especially in terms of the racism or slavery, chicken or egg problem. On the other hand, AS/AF has become somewhat of a historiographical whipping boy, in which people describe it in contradictory ways. Some portray it as about an “unthinking decision” while others portray it as about a conscious decision made in reaction to Bacon’s Rebellion. Morgan’s work is more complex than either neat category.

  7. Tom and Nic, I think you’re both absolutely right to point out the deficiencies of binary theoretical frameworks. The elusive “it” factor that makes AS, AF such a great achievement is that it is messy and complicated– exactly like the time, place, and people that he was writing about. Perhaps that is a rather pedestrian comment, but I think it’s worth reemphasizing, especially when historical theory enters the conversation.

    It’s also worth noting that Morgan’s stated goal was to describe– not attempt to solve– a paradox. The difference between the two is, perhaps, a corollary to Tom’s point about consciousness being the central question of historical theory. I think it’s also at the heart of why the book is a “historiographical whipping boy,” to borrow Nic’s apt description of its legacy.

  8. Tom, Michael & Nic thank you all for the comments.

    I was (quite typically) being too cute above with my description of “how much Morgan mastered the stylish equivocation.” As Tom notes often times fudging the issue is powerful interpretative tool. Sliding around debates or denying false choices can lead to fresh scholar and deep insight.

    I also agree with Tom that the consciousness of historical actors is one of the key questions in historical theory. How much “choice” (or agency, or whatever word you wish to use) our historical subjects possess is at the humanities and human sciences. I was much too glib about this in my comment above.

    That said, I do think Morgan is “fudging” this question when it comes to the construction of a slave society in colonial in AS/AF is a loss of historical vision in otherwise fantastic book. The great planters consciously, I believe, built a slave society in Virginia to shore up their wealth and class position. There was no no stumbling towards this development. Morgan’s generosity with his subjects and sources (as Sara rightly notes in her post) gets the better of him here. The chapter “Towards Slavery” is, I believe, the weakest of the book. Morgan’s generosity towards his subjects sometimes causes his analytic edge to weaken.

    I hope it doesn’t come across that I am bashing AS/AF for the sake of bashing it. I loved the book, I teach aspects of Morgan’s arguments, and remain amazed at the power of his prose. In my opinion if Morgan is to be remember for any book, it is this one.

    This is been a really great discussion & I hope we continue it!

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  10. As a Morgan student–actually, his last dissertaton student, I’d like to throw my two cents in here. First of all, Morgan actually began the book as a study of labor relations in 17th century VA; I don’t think he initially conceptualized it as a book about race. However, a number of things occurred as he was researching and writing it during the late 1960s and early 1970s: the civil rights movement; the work of his newer colleagues at Yale, D.B. Davis and C.Van Woodward; and the conceptual notion of herrenvolk democracy.
    More than a “consensus historian,” Morgan, at least in his own self-presentation, was an empiricist, a historian who followed the evidence where it took him, even if it took him to places he hadn’t initially anticipated. ,And so when the evidence took him to the centrality of race, he went there. Of course, today we know he was able to “see” the racial dimension of the past because of the previously mentioned, contingent influences of the time on his own thinking.
    On the “unthinking” aspect of the transition to racism: here is where his argument is deeply indebted to Winthrop Jordan’s WHITE OVER BLACK. II think it’s important to note, however, that Morgan deliberately paid extensive attention to Native American-Euro-American race relations in the book, in a way few historians at the time he was writing did. And contra Jordan, he saw race relation(Indian-white, black-white)as historically contingent processes rater than as the result of deeply rooted, or inevitable, prejudices. In many ways, as troubling as his conclusions are, he believed that if race could be constructed, it could also be deconstructed. He was a good liberal.
    Finally, the significance of AMERICAN SLAVERY, AMERICAN FREEDOM has grown over time; its importance was not immediately evident when it was published. If you look at the initial reviews, they were positive, but not glowing. The growth of “whiteness studies” and the centrality of racial issues in American history increased the book’s importance over time–which the opposite of what happens to most works of history. As a result, even though many of the book’s particular details can be criticized or contradicted, what the book did is still crucial: it established conclusively that American historians (indeed, all Americans) cannot understand the founding period of their country without acknowledging that freedom for white Americans was predicated on enslavement of black people. This allowed subsequent historians to rewrote the fundamental narrative. Instead of a triumphal, celebratory story, the American founding was now understood deeply problematic. But in Morgan’s view, understanding the contingency of race also allowed for hope about the future of race relations in America.

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  13. Thank you so much for this discussion. Morgan’s book was just recommended to me, but with a caveat, and I was curious whether that caveat was justified or not. Now I know I need to purchase it. Cheers, John Rees


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