"If it is possible to understand the American paradox, the marriage of slavery and freedom, Virginia is surely the place to begin," writes Edmund S. Morgan in American Slavery, American Freedom, a study of the tragic contradiction at the core of America. Morgan finds the key to this central paradox in the people and politics of the state that was both the birthplace of the revolution and the largest slaveholding state in the country. With a new introduction. Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize and the Albert J. Beveridge Award.
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It’s the huge irony in the creation of the United States: a country dedicated to freedom but founded on the back of slavery. Morgan confronts that irony head-on and seeks to explain how such contradictions could coexist. He focuses on Virginia, which had the most slaves of any of the 13 colonies and yet also produced the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as 4 of the first 5 Presidents. His argument is meticulously researched and presented in great detail. He argues that improvements in the tobacco market meant planters could afford to make the greater initial investment required to purchase slaves, rather than the contracts of indentured servants. The growth of slavery then significantly curtailed the flow of indentured servants into Virginia. This in turn gradually reduced the size of the white underclass, which had previously threatened the security of the Virginia gentry. Building off the classical notions that first, a successful republic requires virtuous citizens, and second, virtue requires economic independence, Morgan argues that republican ideologists were able to ignore those persons, white or black, who didn’t fit the mold. Since such persons, by definition, could not be good republicans, they were not entitled to the benefits of republican liberty. When the underclass was white, and the distinction was one of class, there was inevitably class conflict, which occasionally would erupt in violence. When the underclass was composed of slaves, however, and the distinction was racial, then whites could unite to think of themselves as special. As they grew more successful, they could even consider themselves virtuous. They thus could throw off what they saw as the corrupting ways of executive tyranny in the mother country, at the same time subjecting another race to much crueler horrors than those against which they rebelled. Morgan has some great discussions of intellectual trends, including attitudes towards work, class consciousness and fears of tyranny. He discusses only briefly the traditional classical connection between virtue and the success of a republic, and the book would have benefited from a more thorough discussion. He also mentions that some Virginians were able to see the inconsistencies between their rhetoric and slaveholding. That discussion too could have been fuller.