Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox By Edmund S. Morgan



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Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox

By Edmund S. Morgan

American historians interested in tracing the rise of liberty, democracy, and the common man have been challenged in the past two decades by other historians, interested in tracing the history of oppression, exploitation, and racism. The challenge has been salutary, because it has made us examine more directly than historians have hitherto been willing to do, the role of slavery in our early history. Colonial historians, in particular, when writing about the origin and development of American institutions have found it possible until recently to deal with slavery as an exception to everything they had to say. I am speaking about myself but also about most of my generation. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have insisted that slavery was something more than an exception, that one fifth of the American population at the time of the Revolution is too many people to be treated as an exception.1


We shall not have met the challenge simply by studying the history of that one fifth, fruitful as such studies may be, urgent as they may be. Nor shall we have met the challenge if we merely execute the familiar maneuver of turning our old interpretations on their heads. The temptation is already apparent to argue that slavery and oppression were the dominant features of American history and that efforts to advance liberty and equality were the exception, indeed no more than a device to divert the masses while their chains were being fastened. To dismiss the rise of liberty and equality in American history as a mere sham is not only to ignore hard facts, it is also to evade the problem presented by those facts. The rise of liberty and equality in this country was accompanied by the rise of slavery. That two such contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over a long period of our history, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is the central paradox of American history.
The challenge, for a colonial historian at least, is to explain how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution

* This paper was delivered as the presidential address of the Organization of American Historians at Washington. D. C., April 6, 1972 – originally published in The Journal of American History, no. 1: June, 1972. The Portuguese translation was published in Revista Estudos Avançados no. 38: Jan.-April, 2000.

** Edmund S. Morgan is a professor of history at Yale University.

1 Particularly Staughton Lynd, Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution: Ten Essays(Indianapolis, 1967)


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and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day.
The paradox is evident at many levels if we care to see it. Think, for a moment, of the traditional American insistence on freedom of the seas. “Free ships make free goods” was the cardinal doctrine of American foreign policy in the Revolutionary era. But the goods for which the United States demanded freedom were produced in very large measure by slave labor. The irony is more than semantic. American reliance on slave labor must be viewed in the context of the American struggle for a separate and equal station among the nations of the earth. At the time the colonists announced their claim to that station they had neither the arms nor the ships to make the claim good. They desperately needed the assistance of other countries, especially France, and their single most valuable product with which to purchase assistance was tobacco, produced mainly by slave labor. So largely did that crop figure in American foreign relations that one historian has referred to the activities of France in supporting the Americans as “King Tobacco Diplomacy,” a

reminder that the position of the United States in the world depended not only in 1776 but during the span of a long lifetime thereafter on slave labor.2 To a very large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.


The paradox is sharpened if we think of the state where most of the tobacco came from. Virginia at the time of the first United States census in 1790 had 40 percent of the slaves in the entire United States. And Virginia produced the most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality in the entire United States: George Washington, James Madison, and above all, Thomas Jefferson. They were all slaveholders and remained so throughout their lives. In recent years we have been shown in painful detail the contrast between Jefferson's pronouncements in favor of republican liberty and his complicity in denying the benefits of that liberty to blacks.3 It has been tempting to dismiss Jefferson and the whole Virginia dynasty as hypocrites. But to do so is to deprive the term “hypocrisy” of useful meaning. If hypocrisy means, as I think it does, deliberately to affirm a principle without believing it, then hypocrisy requires a rare clarity of mind combined with an unscrupulous intention to deceive. To attribute such an intention, even to attribute such clarity of mind in the matter, to Jefferson, Madison, or Washington is once again to evade the challenge.

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2 Curtis P. Nettels, The Emergence of a National Economy1775-1815 (New York, 1962), 19. See also Merrill Jensen, “The American Revolution and American Agriculture,” Agricultural History, XLIII (Jan. 1969), 107-24.

3 William Cohen. “Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery,” Journal of American History, LVI (Dec. 1969), 103-26: D. B. Davis, Was Thomas Jefferson An Authentic Enemy of Slavery? (Oxford, 1970): Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black American Attitude Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968), 429-81.

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What we need to explain is how such men could have arrived at beliefs and actions so full of contradiction.
Put the challenge another way: how did England, a country priding itself on the liberty of its citizens, produce colonies where most of the inhabitants enjoyed still greater

liberty, greater opportunities, greater control over their own lives than most men in the mother country, while the remainder, one fifth of the total, were deprived of virtually all

liberty, all opportunities, all control over their own lives? We may admit that the Englishmen who colonized America and their revolutionary descendants were racists, that

consciously or unconsciously they believed liberties and rights should be confined to persons of a light complexion. When we have said as much, even when we have probed the

depths of racial prejudice, we will not have fully accounted for the paradox. Racism was surely an essential element in it, but I should like to suggest another element, that I believe

to have influenced the development of both slavery and freedom as we have known them in the United States.


Let us begin with Jefferson, this slaveholding spokesman of freedom. Could there have been anything in the kind of freedom he cherished that would have made him

acquiesce, however reluctantly, in the slavery of so many Americans? The answer, I think, is yes. The freedom that Jefferson spoke for was not a gift to be conferred by governments,

which he mistrusted at best. It was a freedom that sprang from the independence of the individual. The man who depended on another for his living could never be truly free. We

may seek a clue to Jefferson's enigmatic posture toward slavery in his attitude toward those who enjoyed a seeming freedom without the independence needed to sustain it. For such

persons Jefferson harbored a profound distrust, which found expression in two phobias that crop up from time to time in his writings.
The first was a passionate aversion to debt. Although the entire colonial economy of Virginia depended on the willingness of planters to go into debt and of British

merchants to extend credit, although Jefferson himself was a debtor all his adult life – or perhaps because he was a debtor – he hated debt and hated anything that made him a

debtor. He hated it because it limited his freedom of action. He could not, for example, have freed his slaves so long as he was in debt. Or so at least he told himself. But it was the

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impediment not simply to their freedom but to his own that bothered him. “I am miserable,” he wrote, “till I shall owe not a shilling [...]”4

The fact that he had so much company in his misery only added to it. His Declaration of Independence for the United States was mocked by the hold that British merchants retained over American debtors, including himself.5 His hostility to Alexander Hamilton was rooted in his recognition that Hamilton's pro-British foreign policy would tighten the hold of British creditors, while his domestic policy would place the government in the debt of a class of Native American creditors, whose power might become equally pernicious.
Though Jefferson's concern with the perniciousness of debt was almost obsessive, it was nevertheless altogether in keeping with the ideas of republican liberty that he shared

with his countrymen. The trouble with debt was that by undermining the independence of the debtor it threatened republican liberty. Whenever debt brought a man under another's

power, he lost more than his own freedom of action. He also weakened the capacity of his country to survive as a republic. It was an axiom of current political thought that

republican government required a body of free, independent, property-owning citizens!6 A nation of men, each of whom owned enough property to support his family, could be a republic. It would follow that a nation of debtors, who had lost their property or mortgaged it to creditors, was ripe for tyranny. Jefferson accordingly favored every means of keeping

men out of debt and keeping property widely distributed. He insisted on the abolition of primogeniture and entail; he declared that the earth belonged to the living and should not

be kept from them by the debts or credits of the dead; he would have given fifty acres of land to every American who did not have it – all because he believed the citizens of a

republic must be free from the control of other men and that they could be free only if they were economically free by virtue of owning land on which to support themselves.7
If Jefferson felt so passionately about the bondage of the debtor, it is not surprising that he should also have sensed a danger to the republic from another class of men who,

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4 Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (18 vols., Princeton, 1950- ), X, 615. For other expressions of Thomas Jefferson's aversion to debt and distrust of credit, both private and public, see ibid., II, 275-76, VIII, 398-99, 632-33, IX, 217-18, 472-73, X, 304-05, XI, 472, 633, 636, 640. XII, 385-86.

5 Jefferson's career as ambassador to France was occupied very largely by unsuccessful efforts to break the hold of British creditors on American commerce.

6 See Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development and Circustance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the war with the Thirteen Colonies (Cambridge, Mass., 1959); J. G. A. Pocock, ''Machiavelli, Harrington, and English Political Ideologies in the Eighteenth Century,” William and Mary Quarterly, XXII (Oct. 1965), 549-83.

7 Boyd, ed., Papers of Thomas Jefferson, I. 341, 352, 362, 560, VIII, 681-82.


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like debtors, were nominally free but whose independence was illusory. Jefferson's second phobia was his distrust of the landless urban workman who labored in manufactures. In

Jefferson's view, he was a free man in name only. Jefferson's hostility to artificers is well known and is generally attributed to his romantic preference for the rural life. But both his

distrust for artificers and his idealization of small landholders as “the most precious part of a state” rested on his concern for individual independence as the basis of freedom. Farmers

made the best citizens because they were “the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous. ...” Artificers, on the other hand, were dependent on “the casualties and

caprice of customers.” If work was scarce, they had no land to fall back on for a living. In their dependence lay the danger. “Dependence,” Jefferson argued, “begets subservience

and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” Because artificers could lay claim to freedom without the independence to go

with it, they were “the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned.”8
In Jefferson's distrust of artificers we begin to get a glimpse of the limits —and limits not dictated by racism—that defined the republican vision of the eighteenth century.

For Jefferson was by no means unique among republicans in his distrust of the landless laborer. Such a distrust was a necessary corollary of the widespread eighteenth-century

insistence on the independent, property-holding individual as the only bulwark of liberty, an insistence originating in James Harrington's republican political philosophy and a

guiding principle of American colonial politics, whether in the aristocratic South Carolina assembly or in the democratic New England town.9 Americans both before and after 1776

learned their republican lessons from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British commonwealthmen; and the commonwealthmen were uninhibited in their contempt for the

masses who did not have the propertied independence required of proper republicans. John Locke, the classic explicator of the right of revolution for the protection of

liberty, did not think about extending that right to the landless poor. Instead, he concocted a scheme of compulsory labor for them and their children. The children were to begin at

the age of three in public institutions, called working schools because the only subject taught would be work (spinning and knitting). They would be paid in bread and water and




8 Ibid., VIII, 126, 682: Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, William Peden, ed. (Chapel Hill. 1955), 165. Jefferson seems to have overlooked the dependence of Virginia's farmers on the casualties and caprice of the tobacco market.

9 See Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthmen; Pocock. “Machiavelli, Harrington, and English Political Ideologies,” 549-83; Michael Zuckerman, “The Social Context of Democracy in Massachusetts,” William and Mary Quarterly, XXV (Oct. 1968), 523-44; Robert M. Weir. 'The Harmony We Were Famous For': An Interpretation of Pre-Revolutionary South Carolina Politics.” ibid., XXVI (Oct. 1969), 471-501.

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taught would be work (spinning and knitting). They would be paid in bread and water and grow up “inured to work.” Meanwhile the mothers, thus relieved of the care of their

offspring, could go to work beside their fathers and husbands. If they could not find regular employment, then they too could be sent to the working school.10
It requires some refinement of mind to discern precisely how this version of women's liberation from child care differed from outright slavery. And many of Locke's

intellectual successors, while denouncing slavery in the abstract, openly preferred slavery, to freedom for the lower ranks of laborers. Adam Ferguson, whose works were widely read

in America, attributed the overthrow of the Roman republic, in part at least, to the emancipation of slaves, who “increased, by their numbers and their vices, the weight of

that dreg, which, in great and prosperous cities, ever sinks, by the tendency of vice and misconduct to the lowest condition.”11


That people in the lowest condition, the dregs of society, generally arrived at that position through their own vice and misconduct, whether in ancient Rome or modern Britain, was an unexamined article of faith among eighteenth-century republicans. And the vice that was thought to afflict the lower ranks most severely was idleness. The eighteenth century's preferred cure for idleness lay in the religious and ethical doctrines which R. H. Tawney described as the New Medicine for Poverty, the doctrines in which Max Weber discerned the origins of the spirit of capitalism. But in every society a stubborn mass of men and women refused the medicine. For such persons the commonwealthmen did not hesitate to prescribe slavery. Thus Francis Hutcheson, who could argue eloquently against the enslavement of Africans, also argued that perpetual slavery should be “the ordinary punishment of such idle vagrants as, after proper admonitions and trials of temporary servitude, cannot be engaged to support themselves and their families by any useful labours.”12 James Burgh, whose Political Disquisitions earned the praises of many

American revolutionists, proposed a set of press gangs “to seize all idle and disorderly persons, who have been three times complained of before a magistrate, and to set them to

10 C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford, 1962), 221-24; H R. Fox Bourne, The Life of John Locke (2 vols., London, 1876), II, 377-90.

11 Adam Ferguson, The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (5 vols., Edinburgh, 1799), 1, 381. See also Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (London, 1768), 309-11.

12 Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (2 vols., London, 1755), II, 202; David B. Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, 1966), 374-78. I am indebted to David B. Davis for several valuable suggestions.

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work during a certain time, for the benefit of great trading, or manufacturing companies, &c.”13


The most comprehensive proposal came from Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun. Jefferson hailed in Fletcher a patriot whose political principles were those “in vigour at the

epoch of the American emigration [from England]. Our ancestors brought them here, and they needed little strengthening to make us what we are [...]”14 Fletcher, like other

commonwealthmen, was a champion of liberty, but he was also a champion of slavery. He attacked the Christian church not only for having promoted the abolition of slavery in

ancient times but also for having perpetuated the idleness of the freedmen thus turned loose on society. The church by setting up hospitals and almshouses had enabled men through

the succeeding centuries to live without work. As a result, Fletcher argued, his native Scotland was burdened with 200,000 idle rogues, who roamed the country, drinking,

cursing, fighting, robbing, and murdering. For a remedy he proposed that they all be made slaves to men of property. To the argument that their masters might abuse them, he

answered in words which might have come a century and a half later from a George Fitzhugh: that this would be against the master's own interest, “That the most brutal man

will not use his beast ill only out of a humour; and that if such Inconveniences do sometimes fall out, it proceeds, for the most part, from the perverseness of the Servant.”15


In spite of Jefferson's tribute to Fletcher, there is no reason to suppose that he endorsed Fletcher's proposal. But he did share Fletcher's distrust of men who were free in

name while their empty bellies made them thieves, threatening the property of honest men or else made them slaves in fact to anyone who would feed them. Jefferson's own solution

for the kind of situation described by Fletcher was given in a famous letter to Madison, prompted by the spectacle Jefferson encountered in France in the 1780s, where a handful

of noblemen had engrossed huge tracts of land on which to hunt game, while hordes of the poor went without work and without bread. Jefferson's proposal, characteristically phrased

in terms of natural right, was for the poor to appropriate the uncultivated lands of the nobility. And he drew for the United States his usual lesson of the need to keep land widely

13 James Burgh, Political Disquisitions: Or, An ENQUIRY into public Errors, Defects, and Abuse ... (3 vols., London, 1774-1775), III, 220-21. See the proposal of Bishop George Berkeley that “sturdy beggars should ... be seized and made slaves to the public for a certain term of years.” Quoted in R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Essay (New York, 1926), 270.

14 E. Millicent Sowerby, ed., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (5 vols., Washington, 1952-1959), 1, 192.

15 Andrew Fletcher, Two Discourses Concerning the Affairs of Scotland; Written in the Year 1698(Edinburgh, 1698). See second discourse (separately paged), 1-33, especially 16.

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distributed among the people.16
Madison's answer, which is less well known than Jefferson's letter, raised the question whether it was possible to eliminate the idle poor in any country as fully

populated as France. Spread the land among them in good republican fashion and there would still be, Madison thought, “a great surplus of inhabitants, a greater by far than will

be employed in clothing both themselves and those who feed them. [...]” In spite of those occupied in trades and as mariners, soldiers, and so on, there would remain a mass of men

without work. “A certain degree of misery,” Madison concluded, “seems inseparable from a high degree of populousness.”17 He did not, however, go on to propose, as Fletcher had

done, that the miserable and idle poor be reduced to slavery.
The situation contemplated by Madison and confronted by Fletcher was not irrelevant to those who were planning the future of the American republic. In a country

where population grew by geometric progression, it was not too early to think about a time when there might be vast numbers of landless poor, when there might be those mobs in

great cities that Jefferson feared as sores on the body politic. In the United States as Jefferson and Madison knew it, the urban labor force as yet posed no threat, because it was

small; and the agricultural labor force was, for the most part, already enslaved. In Revolutionary America, among men who spent their lives working for other men rather

than working for themselves, slaves probably constituted a majority.18 In Virginia they constituted a large majority.19 If Jefferson and Madison, not to mention Washington, were

unhappy about that fact and yet did nothing to alter it, they may have been restrained, in part at least, by thoughts of the role that might be played in the United States by a large

mass of free laborers.
When Jefferson contemplated the abolition of slavery, he found it inconceivable that the freed slaves should be allowed to remain in the country.20

16 Boyd, ed., Papers of Thomas Jefferson, VIII, 681-83.

17 Ibid., IX, 659-60.

18 Jackson Turner Main, The Social Structure of Revolutionary America (Princeton, 1965), 271.

19 In 1755, Virginia had 43,329 white tithables and 60,078 black. Tithables included white men over sixteenyears of age and black men and women over sixteen. In the census of 1790, Virginia had 292,717 slaves and 110,936 white males over sixteen, out of a total population of 747,680. Evarts B. Greene and Virginia D. Harrington, American Population before the Federal Census of 1790 (New York, 1932), 150-55.



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