The Ordeal Of Colonial Virginia Essay

1926 words - 8 pages

American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia

Edmund Morgan begins American Slavery, American Freedom the Ordeal of Colonial Virginia with a paradox. He presents his readers with the passionate rhetoric of men like Thomas Jefferson: belief in liberty and abhorrance for slavery and reminds us that he, and others like him, were slaveholders. Morgan asserts that the rise in such beliefs accompanied and in fact were dependent upon slavery. He claims that this contradiction is "American" and it is important, as Americans, that we understand its origins and development (5).

Morgan feels that the key to the paradox lies in the story of colonial Virginia; that the political and economic developments that took place in the colony during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries explain the seemingly impossible symbiosis of freedom and slavery. Virginia was the largest of the slaveholding colonies and produced the most fervent supporters of republican ideals (5-6).

Much of Edmund Morgan's text is a narrative history; starting with the initial stirrings of the colonial drive in England at the end of the sixteenth century continuing through the beginning of the eighteenth century; in which the firm establishment of African slavery and the momentum towards American Revolution coincide. But American Slavery American Freedom also reaches beyond narrative: it seeks to explicate how race ideology was developed within the context of colonial Virginia and it clearly demonstrates how race and racism were used as tools for political mobilization; a concept that transcends that one specific time and place.

Morgan sees the society that developed in Virginia as a far cry from what those who first encouraged English colonization envisioned. According to Morgan the idea for the first English colony in 1585 at Roanoke, and then for Jamestown which came after the failure in Roanoke, in 1607, was a biracial society in which Indians and Englishmen lived in harmony. The Indians, it was thought, would be gently civilized; wooed by Christianity and English material comforts. This vision was formulated in direct opposition to that of Spanish colonialism in the Caribbean and South America, which was characterized by brutality, tyranny and genocide. But it was not to be. The society and the race ideology that developed in Virginia did so as a result of a number of factors; important among them were the mortality rate in the colony, the development of tobacco as the staple export crop, and the rise and rebellion of a class of poor white farmers.

The first fifty or so years in Virginia were miserable at best. Starvation was rampant despite apparently bountiful resources and the colony was mismanaged to the point of incredulity. It can be extrapolated that the mortality rate for many years exceeded fifty percent and was equal only to the worst epidemic proportions in England (159). Relations with the Indians from the start...

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