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How the Cradle of Liberty Became a Slave-Owning Nation

By Susan DeFord
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 10, 1997; Page H01

Like America's Old South, ancient Rome teemed with slaves who labored in their master's fields and houses. But unlike their counterparts in America, Rome's slaves also could be ship's captains, bankers, business agents and doctors.

They could be of any skin color, well-to-do, highly educated and, given the state of negotiations with their master, eventually free.

What emerged centuries later in the New World shed such ancient flexibility for a modern harshness. The rigidly segregated system in which captured Africans and their descendants were held in lifelong, hereditary bondage in America first emerged in the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland.

Slavery began as an informal practice in America but gradually changed, becoming codified by law in ways that deepened the social and economic gulf between owner and owned. As the contours of slavery for a new American society were constructed, a pernicious form of racism emerged to undergird the institution.

In 1669, for example, the colonial Virginia Assembly declared that, if a Negro slave died at the hands of a master who used "extremity of correction" to overcome the slave's "obstinacy," it was not murder. In "An act about the casuall killing of slaves," lawmakers reasoned that no man would deliberately destroy his own property.

It is more than irony, historians say, that these colonies also produced the first leaders of a liberty-loving republic. As some historians later would see, the existence of slavery created conditions that allowed wealthy whites to seek independence from the British crown, although the conflict inherent in slaveholders extolling freedom was obvious to the Founding Fathers and many others.

The American Revolution would bring the first stirrings of an abolition movement, but the task of eradicating what had been so carefully created in the colonial era would take generations.

Those who would become the founders of colonial America had a strong reaction upon seeing Africans for the first time in the latter half of the 16th century. The English marveled, publishing accounts such as this narrative poem in 1589: "And entering in [a river] we see / a number of blacke soules; / Whose likeliness seem'd men to be, / but all as blacke as coles."

"Long before they found that some men were black, Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values," historian Winthrop D. Jordan wrote in his 1968 book White Over Black. To the English, the color black meant something foul, wicked, deadly, filthy and sinister. White denoted beauty, purity and virtue.

English travelers to Africa commented at length on the Africans' lack of clothing, their "heathen" religious beliefs, their seemingly lusty nature. They described Negroes as "beastly," compared them to apes and speculated that their skin color was the manifestation of an ancient Biblical curse.

As if at a loss for words to name Africans, they borrowed from the Spanish the words "Negro" (meaning the color black) and later "mulatto" for a person of white and black parentage.

This skewed perception did not immediately transform Africans into slaves for the English, who had abandoned slavery in their country much earlier. England's Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch rivals were building a thriving slave trade along the West African coast, the prime locale for slaves after the trade shifted from the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean of the late Middle Ages.

In that earlier era, whites were taken captive and sold to markets in Italy and Spain. The very term "slave" arose because many captives were of Slavic origin.

As the English set out to claim part of the New World, they first used their own people as laborers. The English discovered early in their first colony, Virginia, that tobacco was a moneymaker but that they desperately needed more men to ward off Indians, clear forests and till fields.

Disease and Indian attacks took a heavy toll on those who arrived in the early 1600s, and historians have estimated that Virginia colonists stood a better than even chance of dying during their first five years in America.

To boost the supply of colonists, the English turned to indentured servitude, a practice derived from English apprenticeship in the Middle Ages. Men were offered ocean passage and room-and-board at a master's settlement in return for terms of labor, usually five to seven years. If they lived to complete their indentures, the servants could become free men.

Though a servant's life in the colonies was harsh, the arrangement appealed to many in England, who felt constricted by overpopulation, low wages and the privileged nobility.

Even in this early era, records indicate that a few hundred blacks lived in Maryland and Virginia. While most were referred to as slaves, they lived, traded and worked alongside the far more numerous white servants, somewhat in the manner of ancient slaves. Evidence exists also of interracial sexual unions and marriage and of black slaves successfully appealing to county courts for their freedom.

In early colonial society, social and racial hierarchies hadn't yet hardened, and slaves could escape the lowest ranks.

One such person whose story survives is Anthony Johnson, called the black patriarch of Pungoteague Creek on Virginia's eastern shore. He was shipped to Virginia in 1621 to work as a slave on a James River tobacco plantation, historians T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes wrote in Myne Owne Ground, their 1980 book on Virginia's free blacks.

Johnson survived a 1622 Indian massacre in which more than 350 Virginia colonists died. In the overwhelmingly male English colony, he had more luck in being able to marry a black woman named Mary, and they raised several children. Between 1625 and 1650, Johnson gained his freedom, though how he did so is not known, and moved from the James River to Northampton County where he raised livestock.

In 1651, according to court records, Johnson acquired 250 acres on Pungoteague Creek, and his grown sons acquired land next to his holdings. After a devastating fire at his plantation, Johnson successfully petitioned the local court for reduced taxes. He also held at least one black man as a slave and persuaded the court to return the slave to him after a white planter took him.

In the mid 1660s, the Johnson clan moved north to Somerset County, Md. One of the last mentions of the family refers to a grandson buying a 44-acre tract in 1677 that he called Angola. Free black colonists in this early time, Breen and Innes say, "lived their lives, made personal decisions and planned for the future in the belief that they could in fact shape their physical and social environment."

Social processes already underway would dash that belief in the cruelest way.

Though demand for labor kept growing in the tobacco colonies, the supply of indentured servants began to lag in the 1660s and 1670s. At first, English tobacco merchants and planters responded by shipping to the colonies more of those people lumped into England's despised underclass the laboring poor, prostitutes, convicts and prisoners of war, including Scots and Irish.

The social gulf between master and servant widened, and laborers increasingly were regarded as permanent drudges, not would-be landowners or entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, English planters in the West Indian colony of Barbados had solved their labor problems in dramatically different fashion. In the 1640s, settlers there developed sugar cane as a lucrative cash crop, but servants rebelled at the brutal working conditions.

So the English followed the example of Brazilian sugar plantations and began buying captured Africans as slaves, importing thousands through Dutch traders from the 1640s to the 1660s. The cost of a man was low. Planters worked them literally to death, if they saw fit, and bought more.

By the 1670s, Maryland and Virginia had a few thousand black slaves, most purchased from English plantations in the West Indies. As the supply of white servants dwindled, England joined the slave trade during this period, buying blacks directly from Africa.

During the last 20 years of the 17th century, shipments of slaves from the West Indies and Africa to the Chesapeake grew steadily, and slaves began to outnumber white servants about 1690. By 1700, it is estimated that Virginia was importing about 1,000 Africans a year and Maryland 300.

Disease and malnutrition killed about one-third of black immigrants to the colonies during their first years, and a scarcity of women kept the rate of black reproduction low. Still, by the 1720s and 1730s, the Chesapeake's African population was growing dramatically from natural reproduction and forced immigration. By 1750, the tobacco colonies held an estimated 165,000 blacks, nearly all slaves and comprising 37 percent of the total population.

Colonial assemblies accommodated America's changing labor needs by passing new laws that made the hereditary nature of slavery legally binding on Negroes, mulattoes and Indians. The new laws also categorized slaves as personal goods. By the Revolution, all 13 colonies had slavery laws, although the practice played a lesser role in the North.

In the rigidly segregated world being created, slaves could attain few of the privileges of education, money or potential freedom found in other slaveholding societies. The government's obligation to protect the master's dominant role deepened in colonial America, and racism grew from informal and customary to legal and binding.

The Virginia Assembly was especially prolific in its legal construction of slavery, producing in 1705 the colonies' second slave code, a compilation of individual Virginia laws dating from the 1660s.

In erecting a racial barrier, Virginia lawmakers turned English common law on its head and said children would follow the slave or free condition of their mother, not their father, who might be a white master. Interracial sex and marriage warranted ever harsher punishments fines, imprisonment, enforced servitude as slave numbers grew in the colony. After 1691, freed black slaves were banished from Virginia.

Beyond the notorious "correction law of 1669," several other Virginia laws increasingly debased the lives of Africans, enslaved or free. Once, for example, newly baptized slaves could sue for their freedom and often won it. That right was curtailed when the Assembly declared that Christianity did not merit freedom.

Other new laws said slaves could not marry, own property, carry weapons, assemble in groups or leave their plantations without signed passes from their masters. If slaves ran away, they could be hunted and killed and their master compensated from the public treasury. Neither slave nor free black could strike a white person, vote, hold office or testify in court against a white person.

Slaves charged with crimes in Virginia were tried in special non-jury courts created in 1692. The purpose of the courts was not to guarantee due process but to set an example speedily.

"Those slaves who attacked white people or property usually acted with a purpose and not just on impulse," wrote Philip J. Schwarz, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who has studied slave courts. "Many killings, poisonings, thefts, uses of arson and attempts to rebel were efforts to oppose the means of maintaining slavery."

The courts could resort to hideous punishments to reassert white authority. Offending slaves were hung, burned at the stake, dismembered, castrated and branded in addition to the usual whippings. White fear of black rebellion was a constant undercurrent.

Still, slavery brought prosperity to white Chesapeake colonists as the 18th century progressed. With cheap slave labor, some early Chesapeake tobacco planters with roots in Britain's lower classes vastly enlarged their holdings, built elegant Georgian mansions on Tidewater rivers and became landed gentry.

Leaders of this new class came to see themselves as independent businessmen rather than dutiful colonists subject to kingly authority. Ironically, the wealth and power that slavery made possible would fuel the drive for independence from Britain.

In pre-Revolutionary War America, the Chesapeake's great planters embraced the republican and natural-rights thinking that circulated in the colonies' pamphlet literature.

"Aristocrats could more safely preach equality in a slave society than in a free one," Edmund S. Morgan wrote in American Slavery, American Freedom. The landless mob could not threaten the vision of an agrarian republic, he said, because in the Chesapeake "they had achieved a society in which most of the poor were enslaved."

Farther north, pacifist Quakers contended that blacks should be included in the debate about the rights of man. "Suppose then, that our Ancestors and we had been exposed to constant Servitude," Quaker John Woolman wrote in 1754. "And being wholly at the Command of others, [we] had generally been treated as a contemptible, ignorant Part of Mankind: Should we, in that Case, be less abject than they [blacks] now are?"

New England's Protestant clergy also urged congregations to adopt new thinking about blacks. "If we could only divest ourselves of these strong prejudices, which have insensibly fixed on our minds," Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins preached in 1776, "and consider them [blacks] as, by nature, and by right, on a level with our brethren and children, and those of our neighbors."

During the tumult of the Revolutionary War, some slaves escaped or were captured by British troops, and others were recruited to serve in the colonies' Continental Army with the promise of freedom. By war's end, the spirit of liberty that moved white Americans to independence had affected their thinking about blacks. Even in the Chesapeake region, home to at least half of the new nation's blacks, some whites advocated abolition of slavery.

A young French general touring Virginia in 1782 wrote that Virginians "grieved at having slaves and are constantly talking about abolishing slavery and of seeking other means of exploiting their lands."

Some northern states went further, actually outlawing slavery, while Virginia and Maryland rewrote laws to ease restrictions against masters freeing slaves. In addition, some free blacks worked for years to purchase and liberate enslaved relatives, while others sued for freedom. The numbers of free blacks in the Chesapeake region grew from about 3,000 before the Revolution to more than 30,000 by the end of the 18th century.

Methodists, the fastest growing religious group in the Chesapeake in the 1780s, considered slaveholding a sin and called on slave owners and Virginia lawmakers to free their captives.

The issue also dogged the Continental Congress. In 1787, Congress banned slavery from the Midwestern Territories but narrowly defeated Thomas Jefferson's earlier proposal to ban slavery in the Alabama and Mississippi territories.

At the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, delegates debated whether Congress should immediately halt importation of African slaves. South Carolina and Georgia delegates threatened that their states would not join the new Union being planned and won concessions that the African trade could continue until 1807.

The Constitutional Convention signaled that, in the interest of union, the "Founding Fathers" would accommodate slavery. Depriving a slaveholder of his slaves trampled on cherished property rights, according to the Revolutionary generation. Compensating slave owners for losing their property was considered prohibitively expensive for the cash-strapped nation.

Simply abolishing laws that kept blacks in bondage, however, would do nothing to change racism and perverse attitudes fostered by the laws. Jefferson, for example, wanted to end slavery in part because it brought more blacks into the United States. Many halfhearted proposals to resettle blacks in Africa sprang from a desire to be rid of a troublesome population.

In 1790, several groups of mid-Atlantic Quakers and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society petitioned Congress to act against slavery. Congress again backed away from the incendiary issue, watering down a committee's suggestion that it gain the power to regulate slavery after 1808.

As the 18th century ended, efforts to root out slavery dwindled. The formerly cohesive Chesapeake region began to split. Blacks increasingly gained freedom in Maryland, but slavery expanded in Virginia, reaching west into the undeveloped Piedmont area and even across the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley.

As the Revolutionary era slipped away, two Founding Fathers took different approaches to their personal dilemmas about slaveholding.

President George Washington wrote in 1794 of his desire "to liberate a certain species of property which I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings."

Washington "certainly wasn't up to freeing them in his lifetime," says Ira Berlin, a history professor at the University of Maryland. After Washington's death in 1799, his will directed that the 123 slaves he owned at Mount Vernon be freed and that provision be made for education of the young and care of the elderly. A larger number owned by Washington's widow, Martha, remained her property. Jefferson, by contrast, never freed more than a few of his estimated 200 slaves. He called slavery an "abominable crime," but the author of the Declaration of Independence also gave renewed voice to racism, writing, among other things that blacks were "much inferior" in reason, that their griefs were "transient" and their imaginations "dull, tasteless and anomalous."

"How do you explain slavery in a republic?" asks Berlin, who recently completed a book on the first two centuries of slavery. "Either the premise that all men are created equal is wrong, or perhaps some people are not fully men."

Susan DeFord, a local freelancer, last wrote for Horizon about the early history of tobacco.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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