R.I.P. Edmund Morgan

Hello friends, if you haven’t already heard the sad news a Megafigure in the field of history passed away a few days ago.  Edmund Morgan was a historian that I was just introduced to this past year.  His book American Slavery, American Freedom has greatly influenced my interpretation about the evolution of slavery in Virginia.  His ability to use the narrative to explain his interpretation honestly had me excited to read the book (I was pretty bummed when I finished it, so this summer I bought The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 by Morgan).  I want to show you just a piece of a paper I wrote based off Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom just as a tribute to his impact on my understanding of that time era.  I beg you to trudge through my writing style (just as you do on the blog) to enjoy part of my argument about issues in Morgan’s book.  I hope you enjoy.

Racial Tension And Social Strife

In order to prevent too many men from being freed, between 1658 and 1666, masters were given the power — by their peers in the assembly of the colony — to lengthen the terms of their servants (Morgan, 216).  When the indentured servants became free, they wished to own and work on their own lands.  At the start of the eighteenth century, approximately thirty-seven percent of these newly freed colonists took advantage of the low rent, and served as tenants to their former masters (Morgan 222-223).  Other men ventured out to the frontier of Virginia.  In 1676, these freemen encountered the Susquehannah tribe.  The other tribes of the area, such as the Powhatan, were in an alliance with the colony at the time.  However, the Susquehannah were an aggressive tribe that had just lost their lands to the Iroquois, and had not before interacted with the colonists.  Conflict ensued from these new relations.  The freemen were driven to wipe out the Indians, which created racial tension. They were getting upset that Berkeley was not going on the offense against the Susquehannah, and so as a result Berkeley promised to send more troops and build forts, though many of these promises did not reach fruition (Morgan, 253).

The poor freemen were prepared to take the law into their own hands.  Nathaniel Bacon — a wealthy man in the colony — was also not afraid to take the law into his own hands (Morgan, 255).  In 1676, Bacon took these poor freemen and led a rebellion against the neighboring tribes, and even attacked the colony itself.  Though the rebellion ended up failing, the racial tensions caused by the rebellion remained.  Even Governor Berkeley no longer considered it “feasible to distinguish between friendly and unfriendly Indians,” an almost complete reversal from his old position (Morgan, 260).  The racial tension that was caused by Bacon’s rebellion contributed to the social reasoning behind Virginia’s government instituting slavery.  It is important to note that prior to slavery the Africans and free-whites of the lower sort were seen as equals based off a kind of class system.  The rich farmers feared another rebellion of the poor like Bacon’s, and the way that the House of Burgesses and Governor elected to prevent that from happening was to shift allegiances from being based off of economic sorts to being based off of race.  The thought was that if the poor whites felt a sense of identity with the rich, white farmers, then they would be less inclined to rebel.  Therefore, a permanent underclass would have to be made.

Slavery provided the source for this permanent underclass.  For Virginia colonists, the color of slaves seemed to make freedom for Africans inappropriate (Morgan, 337).  The Virginia government started around 1680 to pass laws defining slavery on issues of race.  Poor freemen then had someone lower than them on the social ladder, and racial identities were created through slavery. Thus slavery ended up serving not only as an economic commodity, but as a source to create racism, and thus prevent rebellion. 

I have moved up Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 on my reading list, and I hope to finish it this week and write a short review on it.  May Edmund Morgan be resting in peace, leaving behind a powerful legacy on the long lasting discipline of history.



Christian, Lover of History, Aspiring Teacher

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Posted in Historical Finds, Some Of The History We Write, Stories Of Other Historians, Thoughts from Other Historians
4 comments on “R.I.P. Edmund Morgan
  1. johnfea says:

    Phil–You may also want to try his book on the Stamp Act and his biography of Franklin. Good post! I remember that paper.

    • Phil says:

      I saw both of them, and I am putting them in my Amazon shopping cart as we speak.

      • Phil says:

        By the way, I saw in June that Landsman has a book “From Colonials to Provincials : American Thought and Culture, 1680-1760” that is also on the reading list though I may have to put it off to the Fall.

  2. johnfea says:

    Colonials to Provincials is an excellent book. Nice overview of religion and intellectual life in the 18th century.

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