As a birthday present during his centennial year, “The Junto Blog” recently announced that Edmund S. Morgan’s June 1972 Journal of American History article “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox” won its “March Madness” tournament for best journal article in American history, just as his larger book, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975) had won for best book in 2013.
Benjamin L. Carp is the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College. For more on his discussion of Edmund S. Morgan, please see “In Retrospect: Edmund S. Morgan and the Urgency of Good Leadership,” Reviews in American History 44, 1 (March 2016): 1–18 and Michael D. Hattem’s Storify of his #edmorgan100 tweets.
“Slavery and Freedom” is an article about Puritans, even though it doesn’t mention them at all; it’s about what happens when you try to colonize a place without them.
The article purports to be about how the Revolutionary leaders’ “dedication to human liberty and dignity” arose alongside “a system of labor that denied human dignity and liberty every hour of the day.” And indeed, we largely remember the piece for articulating “the central paradox of American history”: how the United States emerged as a beacon of freedom when so many African-Americans remained in chains, with entangled repercussions that still define the nation.
And yet the article spends surprisingly little time on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or Virginia’s slave society, and neither does American Slavery, American Freedom. It’s an irony that Edmund S. Morgan (1916–2013), the article’s author, would have appreciated (call it the “the ‘Paradox’ paradox”): how an unintended argument became his most enduring legacy.
“Slavery and Freedom” began life as Morgan’s presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in April 1972. Morgan had analyzed the Puritan work ethic and the way that the Founders applied it to their rebellion. But when he tried to attribute the ethic to elite slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson, he realized the argument wouldn’t quite hold. So he looked more closely at history of early colonial Virginia to figure out why the South turned out differently. “Slavery and Freedom” was primarily interested in the problems of work and discipline, which led Morgan into discussions of English ideas about debt and idleness, Francis Drake and the Cimarrons, the cultivation of tobacco, the fate of laborers who completed their indentures, and Bacon’s Rebellion.
What we remember most is not this complex transatlantic story or the deep dive into Virginia’s demography, but the graceful and terrifying framing of the argument: “The very institution that was to divide North and South after the Revolution may have made possible their union in a republican government.” Morgan hoped that an exploration of slavery’s origins would help the audience to understand “the strength of the ties that bound freedom to slavery, even in so noble a mind as Jeffersons.” This argument has resonated deeply with scholars and with the broader public, inspiring the work of Barbara Fields, the journalism of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the studies of Roy Rogers, and the pedagogy of Kate Carte Engel. Yet Morgan was not himself a scholar of slavery or of African-American history: what led him to colonial Virginia in the first place?
Morgan’s broader corpus helps us to unravel the ‘Paradox’ paradox. Morgan began his career as a scholar of Puritans (see this New York Times obituary headline) under his mentor Perry Miller. Morgan admired their intricate system of ideas and its internal logic, but he had also seen how the Half-Way Covenant and Puritan illiberality had eventually doomed the experiment. After 1967, Morgan largely left the Puritans behind, but they still haunted him: he wanted to know what elements of their ideas about governance, their work ethic, and their visionary example had endured.
Morgan had also studied the “Founding Fathers,” marveling at their coherent constitutional arguments, their ideas of liberty, equality, and union, and the robust system they devised. A Cold War Era liberal, he believed in the enduring power of American ideas even amid the “atrocities” of the Vietnam War (which he criticized in the New York Times) and the denial of civil rights to African-Americans. And so he wanted to know how slaveholders like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison could also have been the nation’s “most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality.” Morgan was not the first person to notice the dualities in the mind of Jefferson (whose portrait hung in his office), and he was maddened by it.
Racism played a role, but Morgan quickly (too quickly) bracketed this and moved on. He argued that Jefferson “hated idleness” and distrusted landless laborers, and so he was attracted to schemes for compulsory employment. The “spirit of capitalism” might have inspired these “vagabonds,” but “in every society a stubborn mass of men and women refused the medicine.” Looked at one way, Richard Hakluyt’s earlier solution seemed coldly brilliant: send England’s excess workingmen to the death camp of early colonial Virginia. Yet once Virginia became healthier and its plantation owners became more prosperous, a class of wild, armed freemen emerged, threatening to pull down society. If there had to be a mass of landless poor to cultivate tobacco, Virginia’s masters preferred to use enslaved Africans (who could less easily escape) than bumptious whites. These yeomen were given just enough of a stake in society to stay off the grandees’ back.
In this telling, Morgan realized that there were two forms that a liberal democracy could take: it could develop a healthy, egalitarian work ethic that applied to leaders as well as followers (as it did in New England), or it could emerge in a less restrained form of exploitation and greed (as it did in Virginia), with the perverse doctrine of whites-only equality. In the South, liberty and capitalism could only succeed at the expense of slaves, which corroded a society’s values over time. If the “Puritan dilemma” was “the problem of doing right in a world that does wrong,” then the “American paradox” was the problem of doing wrong in a country that professes to do right. Many have accused Morgan of regionalizing the legacy of slavery and racism (since, after all, the Puritans were themselves enslavers), but I think Morgan made clear that these were American, not just southern questions.
“Slavery and Freedom” has had a long life in the scholarly literature and the public mind. Kathleen M. Brown, John C. Coombs, James P. P. Horn, Karin Kupperman, Anthony S. Parent, Jr., James D. Rice, and many others have revised Morgan’s arguments about colonial Virginia, while a much broader range of scholars have contended with the fundamental issues he raised. Where Morgan argued that Jefferson and his peers lacked the intentionality or clarity of mind to truly be “hypocrites” on slavery, now Peter S. Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed are coming up with new ways to delve deeper than the easy charge of “hypocrisy.”
Morgan left us, as students of American history, to examine “the ties that bind more devious tyrannies to our own freedoms and give us still today our own American paradox.” As long as this paradox haunts us, the strength of Morgan’s article will endure.