47 pages 1 hour read

Edmund S. Morgan

American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1975

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Summary and Study Guide


Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia was originally published in 1975 by W. W. Norton & Company Inc. This summary references the Norton paperback edition reissued in 2003.


Morgan seeks to discover how America’s Founding Fathers came to advocate for freedom and equality when many of them owned slaves. Morgan chose to study Virginia’s Founding Fathers because they were among the most vocal in their opposition to the monarchy, because republican Virginia was the largest colony, and because Virginians owned 40% of all slaves. The history of colonial Virginia, then, is the key to discovering the how and why of the marriage between slavery and freedom.


Morgan’s argument is presented across four books, each of which deals with a specific period in Virginia’s colonial history, focusing primarily on the 17th century. As a historical work, Morgan’s narrative is peppered with direct quotes. He relies on the words of his subjects when possible. Of course, and as Morgan notes, one of the text’s central players, the Indians of the Chesapeake Region, left no writings for him to rely on; instead, he carefully reconstructs their culture and actions from secondhand accounts.


What Morgan discovers is that slavery was neither expected nor inevitable right up to the point that it was instituted. The two main groups of proposed workers at the start of colonization, Indians and indentured servants, were never enslaved. Racist attitudes toward Indians were always present in the colony in different intensities, even if in some periods they could not be separated from other forms of oppression, like xenophobia. Leveled at the Indians, racial contempt could not convert them to enslavement because the Indians never worked for the settlers and never would. Nor were white indentured servants enslaved. They were mistreated and abused, and ultimately dehumanized, but never enslaved.


Enslavement of labor in colonial Virginia required a long period of dehumanization to combine and then be applied to a group of people who could be bought then separated, isolated, and disciplined. And critically, as Morgan shows, they needed to be different, so that the elite whites could convince white servants and freedmen that they had a combined interest in equality and freedom that excluded the enslaved: an interest in becoming a master class.

Morgan weaves this sweeping historical story through four books divided into 18 chapters.


Book 1, “The Promised Land” (Chapters 1-6), explores the roots of English ideas and interest in the colony. Morgan first examines the failed attempt at colonizing Roanoke. He then narrates the Jamestown colony’s roots from 1606 to the end of the boom period in 1629. He investigates the issues with the Indians, the problem of labor, how the governing structures were established, problems they encountered with the Indians, and the problems the colonists discovered in setting up an economy and finding labor.


Book 2, “The New Deal” (Chapters 7-10), examines the post-boom years and how the Virginians stabilized and started to develop into a community. The Virginians had to overcome high mortality rates and find ways to diversify their economy. Servants and freedmen had to navigate the big farmer and governing elites’ boundless imagination in exploiting workers.


Book 3, “The Volatile Society” (Chapters 11-14), considers how the colony’s exploitive social institutions divided the colonists into losers and winners. The losers were the exploited freedmen who were cheated out of their land and forced to live near the Indians while the rich got richer and instituted more policies to fleece them. This book also details the first large-scale rebellion, in which rebels sought to use plunder to redistribute the colony’s wealth and to kill the Indians. After the rebellion, attempts to go back to business as usual were impossible, as the labor supply dried up and the risk of rebellion hung in the air.


Book 4, “Slavery and Freedom” (Chapters 15-18), analyzes how the colony headed toward slavery and how racism was part of that equation. Morgan describes the rise of populism, an attempt to placate the freedmen and other white workers, those in and out of servitude. Morgan also shows how the interests of big farmers and freedmen joined with white interests to form a master class that supported slavery and all its horrors. Morgan ultimately describes slavery, freedom, and equality using the words of Thomas Jefferson, the consummate and eloquent republican Virginian who made the argument for independence.