Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740

Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740

Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740

Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740

Synopsis

Challenging the generally accepted belief that the introduction of racial slavery to America was an unplanned consequence of a scarce labor market, Anthony Parent, Jr., contends that during a brief period spanning the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries a small but powerful planter class, acting to further its emerging economic interests, intentionally brought racial slavery to Virginia.

Parent bases his argument on three historical developments: the expropriation of Powhatan lands, the switch from indentured to slave labor, and the burgeoning tobacco trade. He argues that these were the result of calculated moves on the part of an emerging great planter class seeking to consolidate power through large landholdings and the labor to make them productive. To preserve their economic and social gains, this planter class inscribed racial slavery into law. The ensuing racial and class tensions led elite planters to mythologize their position as gentlemen of pastoral virtue immune to competition and corruption. To further this benevolent image, they implemented a plan to Christianize slaves and thereby render them submissive. According to Parent, by the 1720s the Virginia gentry projected a distinctive cultural ethos that buffered them from their uncertain hold on authority, threatened both by rising imperial control and by black resistance, which exploded in the Chesapeake Rebellion of 1730.

Excerpt

Virginia has meant so much to our national romance of adventurers, first families, and freedom that its reality of slavery jars our historical sensibility. Yet our national narrative cannot breathe freely until slavery and its persistent legacy in racism confront freedom’s romance. For this reason, American historians of our generation admire Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom more than any other monograph. Morgan resuscitated American history by placing black slavery and white freedom as its central paradox. He located its genesis in 1676, with Bacon’s Rebellion, when ambitious white men, hungry for land, fanned racism against the Indians into a rebellion against the crown. The recruitment of servants into the rebel ranks frightened the elite. After the rebellion, this fear led the authorities to turn toward racial slavery. By elevating the status of servants and making whites equal, at least racially, white elites had a more docile laboring force in enslaved blacks producing tobacco. Herein lies the rub: enslaved blacks produced the wealth that made possible white freedom in 1776. It is all here—an explanation for American nationalism, Indian removal, white solidarity and racism, the relative absence of class politics, and black exclusion. But is it? In making his prognostication, Morgan leapfrogged a century of history from 1676 to 1776. These questions must be asked: What about this lapse of time? What more can we learn from the pre-Revolutionary generations?

1. Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975); Kenneth Cmiel, “History against Itself,” Journal of American History, LXXXI (1994–1995), 1206; Nathan Irvin Huggins, Black Odyssey: The AfricanAmerican Ordeal in Slavery, 2d rev. ed. (NewYork, 1990), xi–lxx; Huggins, “The Deforming Mirror of Truth: Slavery and the Master Narrative of American History,” and Peter H. Wood, Peter Dimock, and Barbara Clark Smith, “Three Responses,” Radical History,

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