SLAVERY AND FREEDOM (American Revolution #5)

No context, no meaning. Know context, know meaning.

In my last post, I explained that if we want to understand the causes and meaning of the Revolution to American colonists, we need to place the events that get into the textbooks—the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, the shots fired on Lexington Green—into the larger fabric of their lives. This will necessarily involve figuring out what was going on in their lives at the same time as the highly publicized political events that we tend to remember. But we will also need to investigate what has gone on before those events—maybe even long before them. Both dimensions of context are essential.

But context is not something you simply uncover in the archives. When historians speak of historical context, they don’t simply mean “other things going on at the same time or earlier.” They have in mind details that have explanatory power—events or patterns or beliefs that help us to understand our subject more fully. As educational psychologist Sam Wineburg reminds us, the word context is derived from the Latin contexere, “to weave together.” Determining the context of a key historical event like the American Revolution requires that we “engage in an active process of connecting things in a pattern.” Historians will not always agree on what contextual details are important. You and I may not either.

When it comes to the American Revolution, certain contextual details are undeniably crucial. Academic historians agree that it is impossible to understand the beginning of the American Revolutionary War without taking into consideration the way that the relationship between England and her North American colonies was changed by the repercussions of the French and Indian (or Seven Years’) War that ended in 1763. There’s no avoiding the familiar back-and-forth of Parliamentary policies and colonial protests between 1763 and 1776, and we’ll get to that, eventually.

But first I wanted to spend half a week or so discussing the labor systems of colonial America. To get their attention, I told them that I didn’t think it would be possible to understand the larger meaning of the American Revolution without wrestling with the prevalence of slavery and indentured servitude to the colonial world. Can I say this dogmatically? No. Remember, I am learning about the American Revolution along with my students. But is there good reason to think this might be true? Absolutely, and the reason is simple: as the struggle with Great Britain unfolded, the colonists over and over and over again referred to slavery in describing what was happening. To hear them tell it, King George III had determined to make them slaves. If they meekly submitted to his yoke, they would be behaving like slaves. In slavery, the colonists found a powerful metaphor for explaining the imperial crisis.

Here are just three examples from an almost limitless supply: In 1774, the First Continental Congress condemned more than a dozen acts of King or Parliament and concluded that these “tyrannical” measures were evidence of “a system formed to enslave America.” The following year Virginia statesman Patrick Henry employed similar imagery in an impassioned address to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Most of us would recognize Henry’s emphatic conclusion—“Give me liberty or give me death!”—but moments earlier the silver-tongued orator had told his colleagues, “It is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in chains and slavery.” A year later, when the Revolutionary War was well under way and going poorly, the famous pamphleteer Thomas Paine exhorted patriots to persevere in these “times that try men’s souls.” If they chose the path of submission, Paine warned, then “slavery without hope” awaited them.

Slavery was a powerful metaphor because the colonists could relate to it. They could relate to it because it permeated their world. By the 1760s the kind of slavery we remember was largely limited to the colonies from Maryland south. In those colonies (Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia), Africans and the descendents of Africans comprised roughly two-fifths of the population, and almost all of them labored as slaves for life, the property of white masters who had a legal claim both to them and their offspring. In the tobacco and rice fields of the southern colonies, they worked from dawn to dusk producing the staple crops that made Britain’s North American colonies so valuable to the Empire.

ColonialSlavery1

In contrast, by the eve of the Revolution black slaves were scarcely 2 percent of the population in the northern colonies. But this was not the only kind of “slavery” prevalent in the colonial world. Long before African slavery loomed large in the colonial economy, white Englishmen like Richard Frethorne were toiling on American plantations as indentured servants. In theory, indentured servants forfeited their freedom for a period of years (typically between four and seven) in exchange for some sort of remuneration. (Most commonly, they labored to repay the costs of their transportation from Europe to North America.) Indentured servitude differed from slavery in two crucial respects: its duration was finite—adult indentured servants rarely owed more than seven years’ service—and it was not hereditary. As important as these differences were, this much must be understood: indentured servants were not free.

Indentured servants had few legal rights, could be whipped without recourse, could not marry or own property without the permission of their masters, might be separated from family members, and could be bought and sold during the duration of their terms of service. Nor should we fool ourselves by saying that, at the very least, indentured servants had willingly chosen to forfeit their freedom for a time in the hope of eventually improving their lives. Many, like Richard Frethorne, were sold into indentured servitude by their parents, presumably to pay off debts or provide for other family members. (Months before his death in Virginia, Frethorne wrote to his parents to beg them to “redeem me suddenly,” to have mercy on him and “pity my miserable case.”) Countless others sold themselves into servitude as an act of economic desperation. For all these reasons, historians frequently group slavery and indentured servitude into a larger category of “unfree” labor. In truth, there are enough similarities to define slavery as “permanent servitude” and servitude as “temporary slavery.”

Advertisement for the sale of indentured servants, Virginia Gazette, 1774

Advertisement for the sale of indentured servants, Virginia Gazette, 1774

For reasons that historians are still trying to unravel, in the southern colonies white indentured servitude declined dramatically toward the end of the seventeenth century, but it remained crucial to the economy of the northern colonies right up to the Revolution. To illustrate the latter point, I have my students read a collection of advertisements from the 1750s from the Pennsylvania Gazette, the newspaper of colonial America’s most famous publisher, Benjamin Franklin. “TO BE SOLD,” shouts one ad, “a likely Irish Servant Girl, about 19 years of Age, fit for Country Work.” “TO BE SOLD,” announces another, a “Dutch servant boy . . . and a Dutch servant woman.” “SERVANTS,” proclaims a third, “just imported . . . from Ireland, and to be sold by Conyngham and Nesbitt, a PARCEL of young men, women, and boys.”

This ad for a runaway servant appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April 1754.

This ad for a runaway servant appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April 1754.

To supplement these impersonal advertisements I ask my students to read a portion of a detailed memoir by a German immigrant who came to Philadelphia in 1750 on a ship carrying more than four hundred indentured servants. The writer, Gottlieb Mittelberger, condemned what he labeled “this traffic in human flesh” and described it as follows:

The sale of human beings in the market on board the ship is carried on thus: Every day Englishmen, Dutchmen and High-German people come from the city of Philadelphia and other places, in part from a great distance, say 20, 30, or 40 hours away, and go on board the newly arrived ship that has brought and offers for sale passengers from Europe, and select among the healthy persons such as they deem suitable for their business, and bargain with them how long they will serve for their passage-money, which most of them are still in debt for. When they have come to an agreement, it happens that adult persons bind themselves in writing to serve 3, 4, 5 or 6 years for the amount due by them, according to their age and strength. But very young people, from 10 to 15 years, must serve till they are 21 years old.

Many parents must sell and trade away their children like so many head of cattle; for if their children take the debt upon themselves, the parents can leave the ship free and unrestrained; but as the parents often do not know where and to what people their children are going, it often happens that such parents and children, after leaving the ship, do not see each other again for many years, perhaps no more in all their lives.

When we combine the number of slaves and indentured servants in colonial America, it is no exaggeration to conclude that the “peopling” of Britain’s North American colonies centered primarily on the unfree, both black and white. Between 1607, the year when the first permanent English settlement in North America was established at Jamestown, and 1775, when the first shots of the Revolutionary War rang out on Lexington Green, nearly three quarters of a million individuals came, willingly or unwillingly, to America’s shores (not counting convicts). Of these, 311,600 were African slaves; 200,200 were indentured servants; and 217,900 were free men, women, and children. In percentage terms, nearly 43 percent of the total came as slaves and 27 percent came as indentured servants. Only three in ten immigrants to the future United States arrived as free individuals.

So what are we to make of this? I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

16 responses to “SLAVERY AND FREEDOM (American Revolution #5)

  1. I took the course Summer Quarter 07 or 08, and much of it is still on my mind.

    Thank you for the details on the pre-independence slavery situation. I will definitely put McPherson and those other authors on my to read queue.

  2. 22 March 2015

    Tracy–

    A few comments on a stimulating blog entry for a cause of the American Revolution – fear of slavery.

    1/ re:
    “Of these, 311,600 were African slaves; 200,200 were indentured servants; and 217,900 were free men, women, and children. In percentage terms, nearly 43 percent of the total came as slaves and 27 percent came as indentured servants.”

    I find it amazing the records were that good between 1607 and 1775. Who was keeping the records? I see the citation for the numbers from an article by Aaron Fogelman. But don’t have any access to it at this time so perhaps shouldn’t be skeptical.

    2/ re:
    “For all these reasons, historians frequently group slavery and indentured servitude into a larger category of “unfree” labor. In truth, there are enough similarities to define slavery as “permanent servitude” and servitude as “temporary slavery.””

    I think there was a world of difference between the Africans sold into slavery and brought to America and the indentured servants. I suspect the indentured servants knew they would be free. So there was a lot more hope for their future.

    3/ re:
    “Absolutely, and the reason is simple: as the struggle with Great Britain unfolded, the colonists over and over and over again referred to slavery in describing what was happening. To hear them tell it, King George III had determined to make them slaves. If they meekly submitted to his yoke, they would be behaving like slaves. In slavery, the colonists found a powerful metaphor for explaining the imperial crisis.”

    My suspicion is that the talk about becoming or remaining British slaves was more bad mouthing the Brits than actual belief by the speakers. Good way to set the public agenda against Britain. A way to stir up the rest of the population who didn’t mind having a King George III rule over them with the help of Parliament – or at least hadn’t given it much thought. And how many or what percentage of the population were those “the colonists”?

    Gary Hotham

    • Hi, Gary: I apologize for taking so long to get back to you. Regarding the source of the statistics on immigration up through the American Revolution: They are painstakingly constructed estimates, but rough estimates nonetheless. Fogelman attaches an appendix to his article in which he discusses the sources that he relied on and the assumptions that he made in using them. If you are interested, e-mail me and I can send you a PDF of the article. Regarding your second point: I don’t for a minute mean to suggest that slavery and indentured servitude were equivalent, and I am sure you are right that the hope of becoming free made a huge difference in the outlook of the indentured servants. (Although historians estimate that in the 17th century a large percentage of the indentured servants in Virginia actually died before their terms of service had expired.) My main point is to make sure that we acknowledge the numerous limitations on indentured servants that make it unlike any kind of voluntary labor we would think of today. In sum, if indentured servitude was not equivalent to slavery, it sure wasn’t free labor either. I think historians are right to lump it into a larger category of “unfree labor.” Take care, Tracy

  3. I took your civil war course at the UW, and had one of the greatest classroom experiences of my life. Very happy to see you blogging!

    From your post: ” . . . For reasons that historians are still trying to unravel, in the southern colonies white indentured servitude declined dramatically toward the end of the seventeenth century, but it remained crucial to the economy of the northern colonies right up to the Revolution.”

    I seem to remember you telling us in that class of an armed rebellion in one of the Southern Colonies by a farmer who had armed his indentured servants. This incident stayed in my memory as the accepted explanation for the shift. Are there better candidate explanations? Or reasons why this would fail as a cause for the shift?

    So the reason I googled your name and found this blog was another question that has been on my mind. I know I need to re-read the book to answer it, but I was hoping maybe you could drop a link in a comment that might clear this up.

    I think I remember reading in James McPherson’s book What They Fought For about political debate as an officially sanctioned training activity in the Union army, or at least, a widespread off-duty activity in Union army camps. Does that ring bells for you? You wouldn’t happen to have a link to an article about that on the tip of your memory fingers would you?

    • Dear Cedar: Thanks for your kind words about the course you were in at UW. How many years ago was that? Thanks also for your questions. The uprising that you are remembering was called Bacon’s Rebellion, and occurred in Virginia in 1676. It was named after a prominent Virginia landholder named Bacon’s Rebellion, and many of his followers were either present or former indentured servants. Historians commonly believe that the uprising played a role in the decline of indentured servitude and the corresponding rise in the dependence on African slaves, as landholders came to see in indentured servitude a potential threat to social stability. But historians also recognize that there were other factors that may have played a role as well, including an improvement in the English economy that caused a decline in the number of English men and women willing to indenture themselves in America, as well as the success of the English in breaking the Dutch stranglehold on the slave trade with West Africa, a development that tended to lower the cost of slaves to American purchasers. Regarding your other question: I don’t think I am going to be of much help. My advice would be to dig up a copy of McPherson’s What They Fought For, or perhaps his longer book For Cause and Comrades. Another book that touches on the political engagement of Civil War soldiers is the book What This Cruel War Was Over, by Chandra Manning. Take care, TM

  4. Related T.V. note. TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Ar?” episode this weekend (3/22/2015) will lead actress Angie Harmon to learn one of her ancestors was an indentured servant. Given this post, it should be a bit more interesting to watch.

  5. Jim Cunningham

    Very interesting. I had no idea that so many of the immigrants who came during that time period were indentured servants.

    As to what we are to make of the fact that only three in ten of those immigrants were free individuals, and how that relates to the larger meaning of the revolution, I don’t know enough to have an opinion, but I’ll be interested to hear what you and others come up with.

    On a personal note, one thing that caught my eye in one the ads quoted in your post was that someone named “Conyngham” was selling indentured servants. He might have been a distant relative of mine (“Conyngham” being a variation of “Cunningham”). I would have felt better if he had been the one being sold, rather than the seller.

  6. Brian Whartnaby

    “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not…”

    Justice is a difficult concept humankind.

  7. Those numbers are quite a shock, Dr. McKenzie. I think almost every American would be blown away with the idea that only 3 of every 10 Americans that immigrated in those early years were free. I learned of indentured servitude in my primary/secondary school history courses, but always thought indentured servants were a far smaller minority than what the figures your reference present.

    Before my mind raced too far ahead, I did have to stop for a minute and process that this applies to immigration, not the overall population. Be interesting to know the mix of free/non-free was in the general population over that time. Immigration may have contributed faster to population growth than new births, but I’m certainly now interested in learning more about the mix of free/un-free workers as the nation grew over that time period.

    As for the comparison to the current “living wage” movement, there’s a host of problems with that. No one has to accept employment at a rate they do not find beneficial. Workers can leave the job at any time they desire. They cannot be forced to continue to work. They are free to work the job or to leave it whenever they please. They are not property.

  8. Having recently read of the work of activists in the 2006 Walmart wage controversy in Chicago , I was struck by your words in today’s blog: *”Countless others sold themselves into servitude as an act of economic desperation.”* It is intriguing to compare those working towards freedom from “slavery” in pre-Revolutionary America with those working for living wages on behalf of the poor in our generation—particularly when we consider the vehemence of those arguing both for and against, and the challenged legality of the action. I wonder if we might better comprehend the strongly divided opinions regarding rebellion against the king (which most Americans today applaud) by looking at the current minimum wage debate? I’d love to hear your thoughts, Dr. McKenzie!

    Diana Waring

    • Very interesting suggestion, Diana! Let me give it some thought. Perhaps some other readers will respond as well? Best, Tracy

  9. H. Paul Thompson, Jr.

    Thank you! I can’t believe I’ve never seen the numbers you have at the end, before. I’m going to trust you, and incorporate them into my classes. That said, I think those numbers accentuate the “crime” of people wanting to talk about the “founders” of America and omit African slaves. The concept of who “built” this nation has been terribly abused by non-historians. Of course, these numbers also raise the very “un-American” spector of class and the idea of the wealthy taking advantage of the lower classes. But remember, we were originally a “Christian nation!” LOL! Have you read Patricia Bradley’s book on slavery and propaganda during the war? it’s powerful!

    • You’re welcome Paul. The figures I included were provided to me by a former colleague and specialist in colonial America. I was working from one of his class handouts and will track down the citation for you. I am not familiar with Bradley’s book and will have to add it to my reading list for this summer. Thanks, Tracy

    • Hi, Paul: Here’s the source of the figures that I shared on immigration of slaves, servants, and free persons: Aaron Fogelman, “From Slaves, Convicts, and Servants to Free Passengers: The Transformation of Immigration in the Era of the American Revolution,” Journal of American History 85, no. 1 (1998), pp. 43-76.

  10. Jack Be Nimble

    Reminds me of the Bible story about Jacob, Laban, Leah, and Rachel. How Jacob worked (apparently voluntarily) for seven years and was cheated because Laban substituted Leah (of weak vision) for Rachel. Then Jacob had to work for another seven years to pay for Rachel. I am certain that most of the colonists would have known of this story and it may have shaped their approach to indentured servanthood. Interesting that the term of service rarely exceeded seven years. By the way, wasn’t that a clever way for Laban to marry off the daughter that he perhaps thought he might have to support as a spinster?
    I have often wondered about the laws that Parliament passed that seemed so odious to the colonists. They really did not seem to me to be all that oppressive. Yet, I wonder if their mere existence made the colonists aware of the potential for even more ruinous rules that could be imposed? Being physically free but under the thumb of powerful economic and political interests is not much of a step above slavery as the former slaves discovered after the Civil War!
    While many of the aristocratic class of colonists probably had no memory of indenture, the common run of people likely did and that may have conditioned their responses to leaders like Patrick Henry who used the slavery metaphor. The signers of the Declaration of course had another fear – execution for treason if they lost the war!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s