“Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox”


The Junto by The Junto Moderator
As a birthday present during his centennial year, “The Junto Blog
 recently announced that Edmund S. Morgan’s June 1972 Journal of American History article “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox” won its “March Madness” tournament for best journal article in American history, just as his larger book, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975) had won for best book in 2013. 

Benjamin L. Carp is the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College. For more on his discussion of Edmund S. Morgan, please see “In Retrospect: Edmund S. Morgan and the Urgency of Good Leadership,” Reviews in American History 44, 1 (March 2016): 1–18 and Michael D. Hattem’s Storify of his #edmorgan100 tweets.

“Slavery and Freedom” is an article about Puritans, even though it doesn’t mention them at all; it’s about what happens when you try to colonize a place without them.

The article purports to be about how the Revolutionary leaders’ “dedication to human liberty and dignity” arose alongside “a system of labor that denied human dignity and liberty every hour of the day.” And indeed, we largely remember the piece for articulating “the central paradox of American history”: how the United States emerged as a beacon of freedom when so many African-Americans remained in chains, with entangled repercussions that still define the nation.

And yet the article spends surprisingly little time on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or Virginia’s slave society, and neither does American Slavery, American Freedom. It’s an irony that Edmund S. Morgan (1916–2013), the article’s author, would have appreciated (call it the “the ‘Paradox’ paradox”): how an unintended argument became his most enduring legacy.

“Slavery and Freedom” began life as Morgan’s presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in April 1972. Morgan had analyzed the Puritan work ethic and the way that the Founders applied it to their rebellion. But when he tried to attribute the ethic to elite slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson, he realized the argument wouldn’t quite hold. So he looked more closely at history of early colonial Virginia to figure out why the South turned out differently. “Slavery and Freedom” was primarily interested in the problems of work and discipline, which led Morgan into discussions of English ideas about debt and idleness, Francis Drake and the Cimarrons, the cultivation of tobacco, the fate of laborers who completed their indentures, and Bacon’s Rebellion.

What we remember most is not this complex transatlantic story or the deep dive into Virginia’s demography, but the graceful and terrifying framing of the argument: “The very institution that was to divide North and South after the Revolution may have made possible their union in a republican government.” Morgan hoped that an exploration of slavery’s origins would help the audience to understand “the strength of the ties that bound freedom to slavery, even in so noble a mind as Jeffersons.” This argument has resonated deeply with scholars and with the broader public, inspiring the work of Barbara Fields, the journalism of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the studies of Roy Rogers, and the pedagogy of Kate Carte Engel. Yet Morgan was not himself a scholar of slavery or of African-American history: what led him to colonial Virginia in the first place?

Morgan’s broader corpus helps us to unravel the ‘Paradox’ paradox. Morgan began his career as a scholar of Puritans (see this New York Times obituary headline) under his mentor Perry Miller. Morgan admired their intricate system of ideas and its internal logic, but he had also seen how the Half-Way Covenant and Puritan illiberality had eventually doomed the experiment. After 1967, Morgan largely left the Puritans behind, but they still haunted him: he wanted to know what elements of their ideas about governance, their work ethic, and their visionary example had endured.

Morgan had also studied the “Founding Fathers,” marveling at their coherent constitutional arguments, their ideas of liberty, equality, and union, and the robust system they devised. A Cold War Era liberal, he believed in the enduring power of American ideas even amid the “atrocities” of the Vietnam War (which he criticized in the New York Times) and the denial of civil rights to African-Americans. And so he wanted to know how slaveholders like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison could also have been the nation’s “most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality.” Morgan was not the first person to notice the dualities in the mind of Jefferson (whose portrait hung in his office), and he was maddened by it.

Racism played a role, but Morgan quickly (too quickly) bracketed this and moved on. He argued that Jefferson “hated idleness” and distrusted landless laborers, and so he was attracted to schemes for compulsory employment. The “spirit of capitalism” might have inspired these “vagabonds,” but “in every society a stubborn mass of men and women refused the medicine.” Looked at one way, Richard Hakluyt’s earlier solution seemed coldly brilliant: send England’s excess workingmen to the death camp of early colonial Virginia. Yet once Virginia became healthier and its plantation owners became more prosperous, a class of wild, armed freemen emerged, threatening to pull down society.  If there had to be a mass of landless poor to cultivate tobacco, Virginia’s masters preferred to use enslaved Africans (who could less easily escape) than bumptious whites. These yeomen were given just enough of a stake in society to stay off the grandees’ back.

In this telling, Morgan realized that there were two forms that a liberal democracy could take: it could develop a healthy, egalitarian work ethic that applied to leaders as well as followers (as it did in New England), or it could emerge in a less restrained form of exploitation and greed (as it did in Virginia), with the perverse doctrine of whites-only equality. In the South, liberty and capitalism could only succeed at the expense of slaves, which corroded a society’s values over time. If the “Puritan dilemma” was “the problem of doing right in a world that does wrong,” then the “American paradox” was the problem of doing wrong in a country that professes to do right. Many have accused Morgan of regionalizing the legacy of slavery and racism (since, after all, the Puritans were themselves enslavers), but I think Morgan made clear that these were American, not just southern questions.

“Slavery and Freedom” has had a long life in the scholarly literature and the public mind. Kathleen M. Brown, John C. Coombs, James P. P. Horn, Karin Kupperman, Anthony S. Parent, Jr., James D. Rice, and many others have revised Morgan’s arguments about colonial Virginia, while a much broader range of scholars have contended with the fundamental issues he raised. Where Morgan argued that Jefferson and his peers lacked the intentionality or clarity of mind to truly be “hypocrites” on slavery, now Peter S. Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed are coming up with new ways to delve deeper than the easy charge of “hypocrisy.”

Morgan left us, as students of American history, to examine “the ties that bind more devious tyrannies to our own freedoms and give us still today our own American paradox.” As long as this paradox haunts us, the strength of Morgan’s article will endure.


April 4 — The Adverts 250 Project

GUEST CURATOR: Maia Campbell What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week? “Indian Corn, new Rice, Pitch and Tar, – and a great Variety of English Goods.” My curiosity was caught by this advertisement because of the “Indian Corn.” At first, I thought that the Indian corn could refer to some […]

via April 4 — The Adverts 250 Project

Chrysal; or, The Adventures of a Guinea (1760)

From: The Public Domain Review

One of the first of the immensely popular 18th-century “it-narratives”, Chrysal; or, The Adventures of a Guinea, by the Irish writer Charles Johnstone, tells the tale of a coin and the human intrigue to which it finds itself bearing witness. After a rather dramatic and wonderfully overwrought beginning in which we learn of the coin being bestowed with consciousness and dug from a Peruvian mine, the monetary narrator proceeds to dish the dirt on various celebrities of the time as it passes from hand to hand, being conveniently present for a variety of gossip-worthy conversations, romps, and scandals. Spending some time circulating among the streets and elite of London, the coin also finds itself in the courts of Lisbon and Vienna, and the front-lines of war in Germany (the Seven Years’ War was raging at the time), Canada, and the Caribbean.

Upon publication in 1760 (see scan of first edition below), the book was a runaway success, being issued in five separate editions in its first three years alone. Capitalising on the demand, Johnstone brought out an expanded four-volume version in 1765, which like-wise was lapped up by the readers. On the back of Chrysal‘s success there came a slew of similar titles told from the perspective of inanimate objects, nearly always in the form of “The Adventures of a ….”, including a black coat, a watch, a corkscrew, and a Hackney coach. Not everyone, however, was enamoured by this new sensation. An issue of the Critical Review from 1761, in the course of appraising The Adventures of A Rupee, writes:

This mode of making up a book, and styling it the Adventures of a Cat, a Dog, a Monkey, a Hackney-coach, a Louse, a Shilling, a Rupee, or — any thing else, is grown so fashionable now, that few months pass which do not bring one of them under our inspection. It is indeed a convenient method to writers of the inferior class, of emptying their common-place books, and throwing together all the farrago of public transactions, private characters, old and new stories, every thing, in short, which they can pick up, to afford a little temporary amusement to an idle reader. This is the utmost degree of merit which the best of them aspire to; and, small as it is, more than most of them ever arrive at.

For more on the genre of the “it-narrative” read Jonathan Lamb’s essay for us on the topic, “The Implacability of Things“.

1907 edition above, Housed at: Internet Archive | From: Cornell University Library
1760 edition above, Housed at: Internet Archive | From: California Digital Library
Underlying Work: PD Worldwide | Digital Copy: No additional rights
Download: 1907 edition PDF / Kindle / EPUB / 1760 edition PDF

The original 1760 edition.

History Today Podcast: Africans in Georgian England

In this episode of the podcast, Onyeka joins us to introduce a number of aspiring Africans who made an impact on Georgian society during the 18th century.

You can read Onyeka’s article on the subject, Black Equestrians, in the July issue of History Today, which is out now.

Listen to the podcast on this page using the player above. Alternatively, you can download it from iTunesdownload it as an MP3 or subscribe via RSS.

– See more at: http://www.historytoday.com/podcast/africans-georgian-england#sthash.QGnBF9B1.dpuf

Junto’s Roundtable on Narrative and History

Not Only for Readers: Why Scholars Need Narrative

1024px-Berlin_Universitaet_um_1850This week’s roundtable began with a reference to Kurt Newman’s confession, earlier this summer, of feeling “anxiety” about a defining medium of historical scholarship: the book-length narrative. Writing for the USIH Blog in July, Kurt charged that narrative tends to conceal the historian’s assumptions and methods. More specifically, he observed, any narrative will be constructed around an ideological telos. Therefore, the book-length narrative is a dubious vehicle for a scholarly argument.

In our roundtable, we have responded to this useful provocation primarily by assuming its truth. Narrative is a powerful means of ideological initiation; its power is what makes it so valuable to historians-as-artists when they try to communicate with a reading public. On that basis, we and our commenters have been discussing the various ways narratives can exert power. Sara Georgini explored the ways Henry Adams adapted medieval narrative strategies. Jessica Parr described using stories of George Whitefield’s life as a convenient, though dangerous, structure on which to hang an argument about his public image. In the comments, similarly, J. L. Bell observed that Alan Taylor’s book William Cooper’s Town usefully subverts the very expectations its narrative structure inspires in readers.

As we wrap up today, however, I want to return to Kurt’s perceptive critique. I am not sure our response so far is adequate.

We may—may—be correct to embrace narrative as a way for adepts to communicate truth to the unsuspecting. If we leave the matter there, however, we seem to be accepting the notion that narrative is a sort of popular weakness in which scholars as such would best not indulge to excess. I want to suggest something different: that narrative is precisely what historical scholars, as such, should produce—with deliberation, according to professional norms, and with as much analytic transparency as possible—in order to weaken the hold of unexamined ideology on their own work.

I see two main ways to make such a case. The more familiar argument flows from the premise that human experience itself takes narrative form, or, more specifically, that human selfhood is constructed in a process of narration. This premise itself, though intuitively appealing, does not speak to the philosophical aims of every historian, and it puts historians and some psychologists together on territory that is being colonized rapidly by neuroscientists, who do not necessarily privilege narration as a mode of understanding the narratives of selfhood. Nevertheless, this premise provides one way to defend narrative as a scholarly subject of investigation, and—because the only thorough way to document a narrative is to write a narrative—as a mode of scholarly writing. (This argument, it seems to me, aligns the historian’s work with the anthropologist’s and distances it from the work of the sociologist, economist, or political scientist.) For many historians I know, this argument is more than enough to justify a career in storytelling. I often use it myself.

But there is another way to make the case for narrative, an argument that may be a better rejoinder to Kurt Newman’s criticism of narrative’s concealments. It claims this: We are also concealing something important when we draw a dichotomy between narrative and argument. It restricts the extent to which the strictly forensic historian’s arguments can be her own.

A strictly forensic history will gather evidence and offer an interpretation, but that interpretation rests on assumptions about significance. In my view, determinations of significance rest on implicit storytelling: If one does this, then that may happen, and that may make one feel so, which may lead to such. Significance no less than selfhood takes a narrative shape. That means forensic history must acquire its underlying notions about significance from outside its own practices. Forensic history may tell me a death happened, or a birth, or a migration, or a revolution, or a working class; it cannot, without dipping its hands in narrative, tell me what any of those things actually means in final human terms. A death is meaningless except in the context of a life.

Granted: To define a life, either one’s own or someone else’s, is to make selections—to engage in subjectivity and partiality and unacknowledged omission—and ultimately to make a teleological judgment. There is no impartial way to describe a life, just as there is no impartial way to live it. (I would make this more pointed: There is no such thing as a non-ideological life.)

The famous elusiveness of objectivity, most scholars would say, does not mean we must surrender objectivity as an ideal. In debates over narrative, however, this concern is mostly a distraction. The real issue is that, when we limit the scholarly discipline of history to non-narrative forensics, our work is unable to offer even tentative or partial scholarlyanswers to questions of meaning. It must accept unchallenged, or even unexamined, the narratives handed to it by other kinds of scholars, or narratives written by the popular writers it scorns, or—worse yet—narratives handed to it by its own social or political context. Scholarly history thus becomes an ideological tool of others’ narrative practices.

In response, of course, one may point out that this is the condition of every scholar; any form of knowledge may serve someone else’s ends. One may also point out, more specifically, that a historian’s narrative is going to reflect the unexamined assumptions of her time and place just as much as an argument will—perhaps more so, since a narrative leaves most of its assumptions unstated, whereas an argument will at least attempt to make its assumptions explicit. And, of course, one may point out that criticizing “the book-length narrative” as a vehicle for historical scholarship is not the same thing as excising all narrative from history; drawing a dichotomy between narrative and argument does not imply that a work of scholarship should consist only of the latter.

All of this is true. Yet it does not change the ultimately narrative nature of historical significance-telling. Forensic history, written with explicit assumptions, must still assume a sense of human significance that is based on implicit narratives. Its explicitness, then—or its attempt to confine narrative to a small part of the overall scholarly project—may be another form of ideological disguise.

Thus, in my view, the question for historical scholars is not whether narrative is a flawed way of depicting the world. The question is how much we, as professionals who have uniquely relevant training (or should have it—but that is another discussion), will play a conscious and deliberate part in writing the long narratives that define our own (and others’) argumentative work. In other words, it is a question about how deep our scholarly inquiry goes.

Therefore, I think it is a mistake for academic or professional historians to accept narrative grudgingly, as a sort of concession to the power of imagination—or even enthusiastically, as an instrument of intellectual conquest—as if it were something extraneous to our proper analytic practice. Instead, we should embrace it for what it can be: our most distinctive and far-reaching contribution to the scholarly enterprise.


Image: The University of Berlin, now the Humboldt University of Berlin, ca. 1850.

From the Junto: Joseph Edelman on Editing Historiography for the Classroom

The Significance of Old Historiography in American History

Frederick_Jackson_TurnerIn designing courses, professors and teachers face a number of competing claims for time and attention: skill development appropriate to the level of the course, the content described in the course catalog, campus, system, or state requirements for content, the primary sources and scholarship that will promote the best discussions and consideration of the course topic. As many of us have written here at the Junto, not to mention elsewhere, much therefore ends up on the cutting room floor—and some of it painfully so.

That often means, at least in my experience as an undergraduate, graduate student, and professor, that the earliest considerations of a field often go by the wayside. For these purposes, I’m thinking less of foundational scholarship that still holds sway in the field (about which I wrote last year with respect to the history of gender during the American Revolution) and more about scholarship that is largely out-of-date even as it provided the basis for entire fields of study. In other words, I’d like to take advantage of the blog as a space to think through problems to consider whether undergraduate history majors should read older, out-of-date historiography as part of their training.

The issue arose this week in my Native American history course when we read and discussed Drew Lipman’s article on the murder of John Oldham and the saltwater frontier.[1] As part of his historiographical discussion, Lipman distinguishes his definition of “frontier” from that of Frederick Jackson Turner’s.[2] When this came up in our conversation, I paused and asked how many students were familiar with the Turner thesis. Only three students were, only two had read Turner’s essay in a college classroom—and they both read it in an English course (the same one). That seemed a little embarrassing to me as a teacher.

On a certain level, though, that level of engagement makes complete sense to me. Why should they have read it? Very few people conceptualize the “frontier” in the same way that Turner did 125 years ago, nor do they feel a need to respond directly to his argument as part of the historiography. It is, in many ways, totally outdated, more a primary source for views about Native Americans and the West in the 1890s (that’s how my two students read it in their English course, paired with something by Teddy Roosevelt) than a work of historical scholarship that requires engagement. At the same time, however, the Turner thesis or frontier thesis had such an enormous impact on historical scholarship for decades that it still matters on a certain level, enough so, for example, that cutting-edge, Bancroft-worthy research published within the last decade still name-checks Turner. So maybe students should encounter it, or at least have passing familiarity with it.

But where? As an undergraduate, I encountered Turner in a historiography seminar for majors because we did a unit on the frontier, but did not read him, interestingly, in a course called “The Frontier in Early America.” When I consider my course offerings, Turner doesn’t really fit anywhere, given those varying demands on my time. I don’t particularly teach an upper-level course where his argument is all that germane (save, perhaps, the Native American course, but it doesn’t focus exclusively on the parts of North America that became the United States). In my survey course, it would require major reconfiguration because it’s so far afield from everything else we read. There would be benefits to reading Turner: we would have to think more explicitly about the United States as an empire, whether and how that empire was racially based, and it would cast in a new light our readings about Native-European interactions in the colonial era, Manifest Destiny (I assign John O’Sullivan). But to do so would require a major retooling of the course that on first glance would detract from a number of other worthwhile goals (not to mention that I could accomplish the above without assigning Turner himself).

And the problem, of course, is not limited to Turner. We still talk about and find relevance in the work of Charles Beard, for example, and I suspect my grandchildren will be subjected to Gordon Wood a few decades from now. People still refer to Ulrich Phillips and the Dunning School (if rarely on a positive note). I’m not, to be sure, calling for some sort of canon that enshrines a group of white men whose notions of historical scholarship were deeply tainted by their contemporary racial, gender, and ethnic views. It may well be enough to get a brief reference to this outdated work in recent scholarship so that undergraduates are aware that it exists and held influence. To engage fully would require that our courses be held captive by scholarship that has long since lost its edge.

[1] Andrew C. Lipman, “Murder on the Saltwater Frontier: The Death of John Oldham,” Early American Studies 9, no. 2 (2011): 268-94.

[2] For anyone not familiar, Turner was a historian who delivered a lecture on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at the 1893 meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. The text is available as part of the Hypertexts Project at the University of Virginia.