Thursday, February 24, 2005

A Downward Progression

Perhaps the most startling revelation that I have come to these last few days regarding the institution of slavery was how little I knew about the institution itself. The little time that my high school American History class spent discussing the subject largely focused on its political implications in the years preceding the Civil War. I seem to recall brief mention of the institutions inhumanity, but these references were rather oblique and lacked any real examination of its horrors. It was as though its existence in the historical narrative served only as contrast to the progress achieved following its abolition, its evil presented so that we might take pride in its eradication.

Thus, for me the details of slavery were provided by popular culture. Gone with the Wind, Roots, and The Blue and Gray television miniseries were my primary sources of information. And since two of those three sources focused primarily on white Americans (and one is a factually challenged romanticization of plantation existence), these presentations did little to correct my ignorance. Even so, I did come to understand some basic facts. Slavery was an institution that transformed African Americans into property, valued only for their ability to work. The institution was maintained via unspeakable cruelties and freedom, for both the individual and his or her descendents, was unachievable. At the time, that seemed to be all one needed to know.

Of course, while that is an apt description for a certain time and place, it obscures the depth and complexity of slavery's 250 year existence in what is now the United States. What actually occurred during those years is incredibly revealing and, in fact, challenges one of the most central notions of American mythology. In so, a fresh look is overdue.


The first 20 African slaves arrived in the Jamestown colony during 1619. At the time, Jamestown was struggling to become an economically viable outpost in the New World. After several failed attempts at various colonial industries, a strain of tobacco began to show a potential for profitability. However, tobacco cultivation required a massive and inexpensive labor force, something in short supply. To remedy this dilemma, the colonists had two choices: indentured servitude and slavery.

Despite the distinction, there was initially little different between the two labor categories. Indentured servants were bound to service for a specific time period in exchange for passage across the Atlantic. Upon completion of their contract, they were released. Likewise, though slaves did not enter into the arrangement willingly, their term of service was not lifelong. Moreover, since the English did not traditionally enslave fellow Christians, slaves could occasionally gain their freedom through conversion.

At approximately the same time, slavery emerged in Dutch New Amsterdam (which would eventually become New York City). The first 11 slaves arrived during 1624 and were immediately put to work constructing the colony's infrastructure. The terms of their servitude were somewhat stricter than their southern brethren, as there were no explicit routes to freedom. However, they were allowed to earn and keep wages. Also, they had access to the courts and used them to recoup wages that they were owed. And more generally, they realized the critical role that they played in their society and used this knowledge to negotiate favorable settlements on many issues. Ultimately these negotiations led to a change in their status from enslaved to what was known as half-freedom. This allowed them to lease and work their own property. They could still be called upon to provide free labor for the colony, and their children were born slaves. Yet, it did represent a small degree of upward mobility.

Make no mistake. Life as a slave during this era was exceptionally difficult. Your primary value to the society in which you lived was determined by the labor you performed. As such, slaveholders did all they could to extract this value from you. Days were long, hard, and largely thankless. But for all the hardships, freedom was an achievable goal. Hope was not lost.


From the perspective of the Virginia tobacco farmer, they were certain problems inherent with their adopted labor system. As slaves and indentured servants completed their obligations and became free, there was a constant need to replace the lost laborers. This attrition was compounded by the slaveowner's obligation to free those who converted to Christianity. Finally, those released from service began to compete with the established landowners for access to the most productive acreage. To preserve the social order they had constructed, changes would have to be made.

Economic necessity began to drive cultural change. The notion that Christians could not enslave fellow Christians allowed far too many to escape bondage. That tradition vanished. Suddenly, one's race determined eligibility for enslavement. Likewise, the limited term that had characterized the preceding era disappeared. Slavery was now a permanent condition, as immutable as the color of one's skin. And, in one cruel and final insult, the Virginia colony passed a law in 1662 declaring that children would share the status of their mother. Freedom was now all but impossible, even for one's descendents.

With these changes, the profitability of slaveholding skyrocketed. Slowly but steadily, slavery replaced indentured servitude as the exploited labor force of choice. As this occurred, the demand for slaves increased dramatically, leading to an explosion of the international and domestic slave trade. By 1720, slaves outnumbered free whites in some territories by nearly 2 to 1.

However, there were other consequences of these changes. With all hope of legitimately acquired freedom lost, slave resistance increased dramatically. Slaves began to search out the means to escape bondage -- and when they could they ran. Slaves lashed out against their masters, burning their barns and poisoning their food. Outright rebellion was a constant threat and many were put down during this era. Whites responded with ever increasing acts of cruelty. Captured runaways were punished with whipping, branding, and, for male offenders, castration. Even tangential association with a slave uprising was rewarded with decapitation. These grizzly trophies were mounted on spikes and decorated high-traffic roadways as a warning against revolt.

Of course, the barbaric treatment only served to intensify the slaves' quest for freedom. And so, the system began to cycle rapidly downward. Increasing violence led to increased resistance, which led to even darker depths.

But increasing profits, especially in the Carolinas, changed the calculus for the slaveholder. Whereas before the replacement value of a slave deterred the most inhumane treatment, no longer was this true. If a slave was maimed or killed, the deterrence that act provided against misbehavior in the population at large was worth the relatively small cost of his or her replacement. With moral, legal, and now economic constraints lifted, slaveholders were limited only by their imagination. And they were very, very creative.


One of the most frequent misunderstandings with regard to Darwin's Theory of Evolution is what it actually means to evolve. Typically people view evolution as a process whereby organisms move from less perfect to more perfect forms. Implied within this view is the notion of progress. Earlier organisms are seen as less advanced than those that exist today. But, as any biologist will tell you, this is a fundamentally flawed perspective. Each organism is adapted to the environment of its time. As the environment changes, so do the creatures that exist within it. The quality of any adaptation is measured against its suitability for the current environment and not against proceeding forms. Progress is a myth created to bolster the notion of human exceptionalism. It doesn't really exist.

However, this myth is not confined to the biological sciences. James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, spent several years examining some of the most popular American History textbooks. During this research, he discovered that every textbook presented narratives infused with an unyielding faith in American progress. A case in point:

Three textbooks offer appendixes that trace recent trends, all onwards and upwards. These efforts are undistinguished. They do not use constant dollars, for one thing, so their bar graphs of rapidly rising family income or health care expenditures show far more "progress" (if spending more on health care is progress) than occurred… No textbook charts phenomena that might the negative, such as frequency of air pollution alerts, increased reliance on imported oil, or declining real wages.
The story told by these textbooks is one of ever increasing enlightenment, wealth, morality, and freedom. Progress is the overarching structure into which all historical events must fit.

But, the story of slavery does not fit into this mold. As bad as slavery was in 1619, it was infinitely worse hundred years later. Despite the rhetoric of American patriots in 1776, for a substantial portion of the population, freedom was not on the march. Quite the opposite. And while we currently stand far above the bar set early in the 17th-century, the myth of steady improvement obscures the wild oscillations that have occurred at points in between.

This was an important lesson that I was deprived of. True, things often get better. But sometimes they get much, much worse. Moral advancement isn't automatic -- it requires awareness and perseverance. And even then we sometimes fail to escape our darker tendencies. It's a crime that one can earn a high school diploma without facing this irrefutable fact.

We aren't served by the American fairy tale. The truth is that the United States has frequently been a force for good in the world. There is no need to embellish our accomplishments. But we should also recognize that many have suffered at our hands. It is part of who we are. Slavery is a stark reminder of our weakness in this regard and, if it isn't taught accurately, a tremendous opportunity for growth is squandered.

And that is something that we truly cannot afford.

Postscript: While much of the information in this essay was derived from the PBS documentary Slavery and the Making of America, I also discovered this resource. Both were invaluable sources of knowledge and I highly recommend them to you.

Proceed to Traumatic Reverberations, Part I.

Return to Slavery and History Index.
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