The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Nine

George Washington. Revolutionary War general, Founding Father, and the first American president of the United States---and owner of some 200 slaves.
George Washington. Revolutionary War general, Founding Father, and the first American president of the United States---and owner of some 200 slaves. | Source

The policy of religious freedom and the turn toward the exclusive use of black slavery, replacing European indentured servitude, as the primary forced labor regime in the eighteenth century, solved a serious strategic problem for the English colonists who settled the North American mainland.

Religious Freedom

I mentioned this before, but if you were a ruler of a country that was 95-96-97-98 percent "white," let's say; and you wanted to figure out "who was with you and who was against you," religion, a specific form of profession of faith, is a perfectly adequate McCarthyist screening tool.

But the settlers weren't in England anymore. In colonial America they found themselves in a decidedly more "multicultural" situation. If they had carried on the same religious bickering that was going on in England, for too long, they would have been sitting ducks for a unified, two-pronged counteroffensive from the Africans, whom they were enslaving, and the Indians, whom they were displacing.

They had to let go of the violent Protestant-Catholic clashing. Unity had to be maintained for strategic purposes, by agreeing that they were all Christians here.

Exclusive Black Enslavement

The other thing causing a strategic problem for the settlers, was their operation of two forced labor regimes side-by-side in the seventeenth century: European-based indentured servitude and African-based slavery. These labor regimes targeted two separate peoples: the Englishmen who had been dispossessed by the relentless grind machine of the enclosure movement back in England; and all Africans.

The problem with that, from the point of view of the settler elite, was that the policy generated two different groups of people who hated them, and to a certain extent, the entire settler project. This means that the settler elite, and to a certain extent, more broadly, the settler project, was vulnerable to two-pronged counteroffensives. I'm talking about the frequent interracial cooperation between African slaves and European servants, who often ran away and revolted together.

By turning to African-based slavery exclusively and taking steps to improve the life chances of the European immigrant poor, the settler elite managed to cut that number down to one: the Africans.

Question: Why didn't the settlers just reduce the number down to zero by quitting the use of slave labor?

I. Those of you following this series should not forget that England had actually outlawed slavery in 1550, when Parliament had repealed their 1547 slavery law. So, since 1550 actual slavery had been illegal for England and the territories under its jurisdiction.

II. Indentured servitude was okay under English law, but not total enslavement.

III. The question we're really asking, then, is why didn't the settlers of the North American mainland simply follow their own law?


Answer: The answer, of course, is complicated, as are most things in this life. But the thing to remember, for our purposes, is the fact that the institution of slave labor continues because the separate but dovetailing industry of the slave trade continues.

The slave trade was the industry concerned with the capture and transport of Africans, and the subsequent activity of shipping them to the New World to work on plantations and the like under compulsion.

England, for example, profited handsomely, to say the least, from the slave trade. However, England never really made use of slave labor within the country of England itself. The reason for that is that Britain had more "excess labor" than it could handle. Remember what we've been talking about: the entire reason England had overseas colonies is its enclosure movement. England could not ship its dispossessed people out of the country fast enough.

Now then, we all know of the conditions under which captured Africans were shipped over to the New World; we needn't review them here.

The point is that you cannot ship people to a place, in the way the captured Africans were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean, and then just take off the shackles and say: Well, here we are. Welcome to your new home. We gonna get you started with apprenticeship programs in various trades and professions! And so forth.

You cannot do that. For one thing, the conditions under which the Africans were transported were the kind of conditions which make people furiously angry. Therefore you have to leave the shackles on to control them. Otherwise they would have been likely to kill everyone in sight by the time they landed. As you know, oftentimes the Africans revolted aboard the ships.

Question: If England had outlawed actual slavery in 1550; and if England itself had not relied upon African slave labor within the country itself; and if Britain would have been, certainly in theory, interested in having British citizens obey British laws wherever they may have resided; then why did Britain enable the settlers on the North American mainland to break English common law by selling them slaves? I suppose what we're asking is why did England engage in the slave trade, if it had outlawed the institution of slavery?


I won't pretend to have the full answer to this, as ever, complicated question. But there are a few points that we can identify, which might help to begin to resolve the paradox.

1. I could be wrong, but there is a chance---a chance, mind you---that the British may not have known that the settlers on the North American mainland would actually and totally enslave the Africans they were selling them. Those of you following this series may recall that there was a great similarity between the way European indentured servants and African slaves they were transported to the New World. Those of you following this series may recall that servants were bought and sold in the same way that African slaves were. Both groups of forced labor were subject to the whims of their elite class owners, whose caprice included beatings and whippings for both groups, the rape of both groups of women.

Now, one difference was that term of indentured servant was finite, temporary. The Africans "served" for life.

At the end of their term the servants were supposed to be given some compensation: a gun, a patch of dirt of their own to farm, corn, grain, or something like that. The African slave got nothing, as you know.

However, once again, those of you who've been following this series know that the survivability rate of the indentured servants was not always so good. A cynical person might say: 'Well, well, well at the end of a seven year term---say at six years and eleven months, if an "accident" should befall my servant, why, then I will not be liable to tender any compensation.'

Anyway, the possibility is open that England did not know that the settlers of the North American mainland---particularly in the southeast region---would actually enslave the Africans.


2. The second thing to say about all of this makes point #1 considerably less ridiculous than it appears to be on the surface. We should remember---those of you following this series---that the British got involved with African enslavement by taking the first baby steps into the African slave trade in the 1560s, trying to sell slaves to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World.

The Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English enslaved Africans in the New World. That is true. But it is also true---though I did not go over this in this series---that those four systems all varied from each other. Basically, the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch enslavement of Africans never reached the level of severity that obtained on the North American mainland under British administration---that is to say the British colonists.

For example, those of you following this series may recall that we saw how the Dutch in New Netherland (New York) treated black-skinned African slaves with much less severity and more openness than the British colonists even treated white-skinned, fellow British and European indentured servants.

In retrospect, I suppose that the reason the British colonists were so much more severe with African, black-skinned slaves than the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, was because the Brits wanted to strongly mark would become the social, political, legal, and economic differences between "black" and "white."

3. The slave trade (and indentured servant trade) was not only profitable in the direct way in the sale of the slaves. But this business supported employment of what would have been idle hands. After all, to get in this business you're going to need more shipbuilding, sailors, mapmaking and navigation, insurance, credit, and banking services.

Again, those of you following this series will recall that in England, as a result of the beginning of the enclosure process, experienced a massive social crisis in the 1530s. Perhaps you could call it a national "depression" or "deep recession."

As you may recall, Parliament responded to this crisis by passing a slavery law in 1547. Then, three years later, Parliament repealed the law in 1550; and went to work hammering out a labor regime.

As we saw, it was in the 1560s that England took the baby steps into the African slave trade. The juxtaposition of these events suggests a relationship: that engagement with the African slave trade (in various capacities) obviously provided an outlet for idle hands looking for work.

4. For all of these reasons (and perhaps some I could not think of), Britain might very well have found itself in the seemingly paradoxical position of having engaged very profitably in the Atlantic "slave trade" (I use quotes because the English might have thought of it like "indentured servitude"), while simultaneously fully expecting the British colonists on the North American mainland to keep themselves in compliance with the 1550 law prohibiting the total enslavement of human beings.

We will pick up with new information in part ten. I will give some examples of the interracial cooperation between black slaves, Indian servants, and Euro-American indentured servants, what the settler elite did about it.

Thank you so much for reading!

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