America, a nation conceived in liberty was also a nation conceived in slavery

By | July 18, 2019

Drew Gilpin Faust writes:

Virginia has a long history to confront. Our nation’s experience with slavery began there, when some 20 captive Africans arrived on a warship in Jamestown in 1619. Black bondage existed in Virginia for close to a century longer than black freedom has. Slavery made colonial Virginia prosperous, creating a plantation society founded on tobacco production, social and economic stratification, and unfree labor. It also produced a class of white owners whose daily witness to the degradations of bondage instilled in them a fierce devotion to their own freedom. They were determined to be the masters not just of their households, their estates, and their laborers, but also of their society, their polity, and their destiny. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason—slaveholders all. That so many of the Founding Fathers, including the leaders of the Revolution and the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, were slaveholders is both an irony and a paradox. As Samuel Johnson remarked with scorn for the revolutionaries across the Atlantic: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

But in another sense, as the historian Edmund Morgan argued so powerfully nearly half a century ago, slavery and freedom were not at odds, but integrally intertwined, even mutually constitutive. It was the unfreedom of 40 percent of Virginia’s population that made the liberty of the rest imaginable as well as materially possible. The economic viability of both the colony and the new nation depended on slave labor. And so did the viability of the Revolution’s political experiment and the Founders’ republican vision. The Virginia gentry could countenance the extension of freedom to some men because it was withheld from others; the exclusion of a portion of the population from the polity, their subjugation and control, made possible the advocacy of equality for the rest. The nation conceived in liberty was also the nation conceived in slavery. The state of Virginia and the country it did so much to create were born out of a set of conflicting commitments that have destabilized the republic ever since. Yet the presence of this paradox at the heart of the Founders’ vision is perhaps the good news, for freedom has had its own driving logic, has claimed its own agenda, has propelled us over time toward better angels. [Continue reading…]

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