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.
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.”
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.”
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.