For the past quarter century Edmund S. Morgan has been one of the most prolific and respected authors of early American history. This is an excellent, in depth survey of Virginia?s colonial experience, with an emphasis on how the seemingly contradictory institutions of slavery and equalitarian republicanism developed simultaneously.
Indeed, Morgan argues that Virginians? definition of freedom, and their very ability to establish a republican political system, rested upon the creation of African slavery. Morgan shows that institutionalized slavery did not necessarily have to become part of British colonization; the earliest Englishmen to dream of a colonial empire hoped for the establishment of a utopian community in which natives could benefit from enlightened English governance that recognized the inherent rights of all men.
Early English explorers even helped to organize revolts against the Spanish by their slaves in Latin America, and while they were motivated by their own interests in doing so, they clearly were willing to treat their slave co-conspirators as equals. However, the utopian phase of colonization died with the failed settlement at Roanoke in the 1580s. The founders of Jamestown quickly learned racism towards the Indians, whom Morgan speculates they goaded into warfare out of frustration at their own inability to support themselves.
The settlement eventually became prosperous as the colonists learned to produce tobacco for market, but it was hardly the ideal society envisioned by the founders. Labor shortages were endemic, as to make a profit planters needed to control a large number of indentured servants. Unfortunately (for the planters), laborers needed only to serve for a limited period before setting up business for themselves, and thus creating competition for the planters.
To check this competition, planters made it difficult for freedmen to buy lands of their own (land was plentiful, but acreage with access to shipping had been almost totally monopolized by the large planters), which resulted in freedmen foregoing planting, and becoming lazy, shiftless, and at times rebellious. Moreover, planters treated their indentured servants so poorly that as news of their condition drifted back to England, fewer of the mother country?s poor were willing to indenture themselves, especially as the burdens of overpopulation were being reduced at home.