The Origins of Slavery

Where Historians Disagree - The Origins of Slavery

The debate among historians over how and why white Americans created a system of slave labor in the seventeenth century—and how and why they determined that people of African descent and no others should populate that system—has been a long and unusually heated one. At its center is the question of whether slavery was a result of white racism or helped to create it.

In 1950, Oscar and Mary Handlin published an in?uential article, "Origins of the Southern Labor System," which noted that many residents of the American colonies (and of England) lived in varying degrees of "unfreedom" in the seventeenth century, although none resembling slavery as it came to be known in America. The ?rst Africans who came to America lived for a time in conditions not very different from those of white indentured servants. But slavery came ultimately to differ substantially from other conditions of servitude.

It was permanent bondage, and it passed from one generation to the next. That it emerged in America, the Handlins argued, resulted from efforts by colonial legislatures to increase the available labor force. That it included African Americans and no others was because black people had few defenses and few defenders. Racism emerged to justify slavery; it did not cause slavery.

In 1959, Carl Degler became the ?rst of a number of important historians to challenge the Handlins. In his essay "Slavery and the Genesis of American Race Prejudice," he argued that Africans had never been like other servants in the Chesapeake; that "the Negro was actually never treated as an equal of the white man, servant or free." Racism was strong "long before slavery had come upon the scene." It did not result from slavery, but helped cause it. Nine years later, Winthrop D. Jordan argued similarly that white racism, not economic or legal conditions, produced slavery. In White Over Black (1968) and other, earlier writings, Jordan argued that Europeans had long viewed people of color—and black Africans in particular—as inferior beings appropriate for serving whites. Those attitudes migrated with white Europeans to the New World, and white racism shaped the treatment of Africans in America—and the nature of the slave labor system—from the beginning.

George Fredrickson has echoed Jordan’s emphasis on the importance of racism as an independent factor reinforcing slavery; but unlike Jordan, he has argued that racism did not precede slavery. "The treatment of blacks," he wrote, "engendered a cultural and psycho-social racism that after a certain point took on a life of its own. . . .

Racism, although the child of slavery, not only outlived its parent but grew stronger and more independent after slavery's demise."

Peter Wood's Black Majority (1974), a study of seventeenth-century South Carolina, moved the debate back away from racism and toward social and economic conditions. Wood demonstrated that blacks and whites often worked together on relatively equal terms in the early years of settlement. But as rice cultivation expanded, ?nding white laborers willing to do the arduous work became more dif?cult. The forcible importation of African workers, and the creation of a system of permanent bondage, was a response to a growing demand for labor and to fears among whites that without slavery a black labor force would be dif?cult to control.

Similarly, Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) argued that the southern labor system was at ?rst relatively ?exible and later grew more rigid. In colonial Virginia, he claimed, white settlers did not at ?rst intend to create a system of permanent bondage. But as the tobacco economy grew and created a high demand for cheap labor, white landowners began to feel uneasy about their dependence on a large group of dependent white workers, since such workers were dif?cult to recruit and control. Thus slavery was less a result of racism than of the desire of white landowners to ?nd a reliable and stable labor force. Racism, Morgan contended, was a result of slavery, an ideology created to justify a system that had been developed to serve other needs. And David Brion Davis, in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), argued that while prejudice against blacks had a long history, racism as a systematic ideology was crystallized during the American Revolution—as Americans such as Thomas Jefferson struggled to explain the paradox of slavery existing in a republic committed to individual freedom.

Robin Blackburn's The Making of New World Slavery (1996) is perhaps the most emphatic statement of the economic underpinnings of slavery. Why, he asks, did the American colonies create a thriving slave labor system at a time when slavery had almost entirely died out in Europe? He concedes that race was a factor; Africans were "different" in appearance, culture, and religion from European colonists, and it was easier to justify enslaving them than it was to justify enslaving English, French, or Spanish workers. But the real reasons for slavery were hardheaded economic decisions by ambitious entrepreneurs, who realized very early that a slave-labor system in the labor-intensive agricultural world of the American South and the Caribbean was more pro?table than a free-labor system. Slaveowning planters, he argues, not only enriched themselves; they created wealth that bene?ted all of colonial society and provided signi?cant capital for the rapidly developing economy of England. Thus, slavery served the interests of a powerful combination of groups: planters, merchants, governments, industrialists, and consumers. Race may have been a rationale for slavery, allowing planters and traders to justify to themselves the terrible human costs of the system. But the most important reason for the system was not racism, but the pursuit of pro?t—and the success of the system in producing it. Slavery was not, according to Blackburn, an antiquated remnant of an older world. It was, he uncomfortably concludes, a recognizably modern labor system that, however horrible, served the needs of an emerging market economy. - "Slavery and the Origins of the Civil War," Eric Foner - Interpretations of Slavery: Phillips & Stampp - "What are the Origins of American Slavery?"


After reading the historiographic essays on slavery's origins, do you believe slavery was more a cause or a result of white racism? Reference historians' arguments to support your thesis. With what other central questions have historians grappled in this literature? - Philip Morgan's Slave Counterpoint, Chapter 1 (You must register at this site, but it is free.) - Ira Berlin's Many Thousands Gone, Summary and Praise


Two of the more important books on the origins of slavery to emerge in recent times are Philip Morgan's Slave Counterpoint and Ira Berlin's Many Thousands Gone. Using the excerpts and reviews above, summarize briefly their respective arguments and how they fit in the wider debate over the historiography of slavery. - "Founding Fathers and Slavery," William Freehling - "Slavery and the Constitutional Revolution," Daniel Robinson


In his landmark American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund Morgan aims "to explain how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day." What do you make of this contradiction? Is it a coincidence that a revolution based on liberty arose in a land grounded in slavery, or something more? Evaluate Morgan's claim using the essays by Freehling and Robinson. Support your thesis using material and arguments from the websites above.