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American Slavery, American Freedom

4.10  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,985 Ratings  ·  76 Reviews
In the American Revolution, Virginians were the most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and quality. George Washington led the Americans in battle against British oppression. Thomas Jefferson led them in declaring independence. Virginians drafted not only the Declaration but also the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; they were elected to the presidency of the United States ...more
Paperback, 464 pages
Published October 17th 2003 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 1975)
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Jay Perkins
Aug 18, 2016 Jay Perkins rated it it was amazing
One of the most disturbing facts in American history is that of chattel slavery. So often have I wondered how a thing as terrible as slavery could exist in the land of free. Edmund Morgan examines this in "American Slavery, American Freedom" and shows that the two were in large part dependent upon each other. Though written over 30 years ago,"AS, AM" is still considered by many contemporary historians as one of the definitive, (if not the best) histories of colonial America.

The book is not a so
Robert Owen
Feb 23, 2013 Robert Owen rated it it was amazing
This is a fantastic, must read book for anyone interested in the origins of American racism. Morgan recounts the cultural, economic and political evolution of the 17th and early 18th century Virginia, and with it, makes comprehensible the reasons why racial slavery emerged as an integral component to the development of the white community’s pre-revolutionary ideals of independence and liberty.

At the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607, Virginia offered vast tracts of land available to anyon
Sep 09, 2015 Matthew rated it it was amazing
What a fantastic book. The parts about how the ruling elite passed legislation with the direct purpose of creating a rift between poor whites and black slaves and free blacks because they feared a servile insurrection would topple their extortionist state was depressing.

I thought his discussion on the interaction between the views of the poor in England and America, the Commonwealth Men thought, the eventual alliance of small white landholders and large landholders, and the seemingly contradict
Jul 20, 2015 Godfrey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"The most ardent American republicans were Virginians, and their ardor was not unrelated to their power over the men and women they held in bondage. In the republican way of thinking as Americans inherited it from England, slavery occupied a critical, if ambiguous, position: it was the primary evil that men sought to avoid for society as a whole by curbing monarchs and establishing republics. But it was also the solution to one of society's most serious problems, the problem of the poor. Virgini ...more
Joseph Stieb
Jun 07, 2015 Joseph Stieb rated it really liked it
This book is pretty dense and long, but it's a brilliant and even somewhat disturbing argument. Morgan's thesis is that the free, egalitarian Virginia that emerged in the 18th century had that freedom and stability largely because of slavery. In other words, the freedom of most white Virginians rested upon the slavery of most black Virginians.

Ok, let me spell this out more thoroughly. The original settlements in VA had a major labor problem. The companies that set up these settlements wanted the
Blythe King
Feb 06, 2013 Blythe King rated it it was amazing
“There it was. Aristocrats could more safely preach equality in a slave society than in a free one. Slaves did not become leveling mobs, because their owners would see to it that they had no chance to. The apostrophes to equality were not addressed to them. And because Virginia’s labor force was composed mainly of slaves, who had been isolated by race and removed from the political equation, the remaining free laborers and tenant farmers were too few in number to constitute a serious threat to t ...more
Barksdale Penick
Sep 29, 2011 Barksdale Penick rated it it was amazing
I had expected this book to address in detail the role of slavery in colonial America, but to my surprise it presents by far the most lucid account I have read of the first 100 years of the Virginia colony. During those early years, slavery was rare (although legal). The book recounts the economic circumstances that led to a demand for cheap labor: almost unlimited land and an easy cash crop in tobacco if the owner had access to labor. The book suggests that increased life expectancy made the pu ...more
Sep 19, 2012 Alessandra rated it liked it
There is no doubt that Morgan carefully dissects a quintessential paradox within American history: the emergence of American freedom (namely white, male freedom) in the midst of slavery. What Morgan astutely argues is that the specific strain of American freedom he outlines is, in actuality, wedded to slavery. Morgan uses the history of Virginia to examine how these seemingly incompatible institutions and ideologies became strange bedfellows that still rest at the foundation of the United States ...more
We paint a utopic picture, quite literally straight out of Thomas More (Morgan, 23)—and we paint with broad and inspired brush strokes “…the ingenious innovation of the Elizabethan conquistadores and their circle of promoters of American colonization was their forging of a discourse of conquest that spoke with intense and legitimating passion to their countrymen’s own emerging and merging sense of material and spiritual manifest destiny. The Elizabethan could passionately pursue either side of t ...more
Aug 07, 2013 Chris rated it it was amazing
Morgan is not only a revered and accomplished historian, he is a gifted writer. While the book could be a work of inaccessibly dry scholarship, Mogan brings the inherent philosophical conflict of West Virginia to life in this well-crafted book. American Slavery, American Freedom covers the history of Virginia from its founding past the establishment of the race-based slavery with copious primary source material. Through the material, Morgan explores the inherent conflict between the Age of Reaso ...more
Feb 22, 2012 John rated it it was amazing
This is truly fantastic, another book that I thought I was going to have to "grad student read" (intro, conclusion, skim the rest) and then I couldn't put it down. Morgan sets a grand goal for his work here: to examine the central paradox in American history, the fact that the rise of liberty somehow was tied together with the rise of slavery. The perfect place to study this paradox, he argues, is Virginia- first colony, leading Revolutionary state, and eventually staunch slave state.
Morgan's m
Brian Bean
Jul 18, 2015 Brian Bean rated it it was amazing
Absolutely fantastic book. This micro-history of colonial Virginia lays out a rich argument that the foundation of Virginian and thus American republicanism is dependent upon the institution of slavery. By going through the changes in Virginian economy and the shift from an economy based on indentured servitude to the racialized institution of Black chattel slavery Morgan lays out how: "in the republican way of thinking as Americans inherited it from England, slavery occupied a critical if ambig ...more
Stephen Matlock
Mar 09, 2016 Stephen Matlock rated it it was amazing
Very nimble and clear writing for such a book packed with data and narrative. The author argues that the experience of the Virgina colonies show the natural and inevitable rise in slavery as an American solution to a very real problem of labor shortages, excess capacity, and open markets.
Laura Kaye
Jul 03, 2010 Laura Kaye rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This ranks as one of the non-fiction history books I wish I would've written. Truly foundational to the understanding of early American history, and relating the evolution of the two ends of the spectrum of freedom in a way that fully relates the uniqueness of the American experience.
Bob Croft
May 03, 2016 Bob Croft rated it it was amazing
Good history of colonial Virginia, focusing on the labor force (indentured, free and slave), economy, and concepts of liberty. Ties together the danger perceived in both England and Virginia of the non-working poor, leading in England to workhouses, transportation or the gibbet, and to proposals of enslavement of the poor; and in Virginia to the substitution of slave for indentured servant. The thought (culminating in Jefferson) was that a free citizenry must rest on the independence and virtue ...more
Aug 24, 2016 Eric rated it it was amazing
Shelves: us-history
This book is justly a classic. A true masterpiece of historical research and writing. Morgan transparently uses a vast number of primary sources and painstakingly works toward an answer to an important historical question: how can we make sense of "the union of freedom and slavery in Virginia and America." (p. 362) I can see why it is a very rare example of a book that remains very influential in the historiography of a field for four decades (see: )

I rea
Mar 06, 2015 Cara rated it it was amazing
This is a very readable, well-researched book on the origins of slavery in Virginia. I was actually surprised to read that this book was first published 40 years ago, because I didn't get the impression reading it that it was anything less than very modern.
John E
May 21, 2016 John E rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Somewhat dry, but an excellent study of the origins of American "equality" and "republicanism" and how they were based on racism and disdain for the the poor. His basic point is that racism and slavery in Virginia was the foundation of American social views and how it was based on the class structure of current British views of the poor as a "vile" race different from the landowning betters. The ideas still resonate with Americans as seen in the reference of segregated neighborhoods as "the poor ...more
Jul 28, 2014 Noah rated it it was amazing
Inspired by the wonderful essay "The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I came into this book wanting to learn how American racism came to be so I could better understand how that legacy has shaped (and continue to shapes) American society. Indeed, Morgan delves into 16th/17th century Virginia with an exacting and comprehensive vigor, utilizing centuries-old primary sources to capture a burgeoning slave society before black & white were even a distinction. The book is wonderfully pac ...more
Jul 06, 2015 Debra rated it it was amazing
I once sat through a 3 hour discussion from various historians just to hear the moderator read Morgan's response to their research. Morgan was well into his 80s and could no longer travel. The room was standing room only. It was completely worth it! You could hear a pin drop as we listened to Morgan's words. Morgan has a distinctive view on slavery and racism that has become the measuring stick for all other historic research on the topic. Although high school students may find it a bit challeng ...more
Oct 03, 2014 Aeisele rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most amazing pieces of history I have ever read. Morgan's thesis is this:

"Racism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to the equality that English republicans had declared to be the soul of liberty...[B]y lumping Indians, mulattoes, and Negroes in a single pariah class, Virginians had paved the way for a similar lumping of small and large planters into a single master class" (386).

This statement is on the second to last page, and for the first 14 chapter
Simon Wood
Feb 05, 2014 Simon Wood rated it it was amazing

American Freedom, American Slavery is a marvelous history of Colonial Virginia from the time when it was an apple in the eyes of the Hakyluts until the American War of Independence.

The central theme of the book is the apparent paradox between the high level of freedom enjoyed by some in the colony and the servitude and slavery endured by many others. Other topics include the relationship between the colonisers and the Native Americans, the tobacco economy (quite lit
Apr 13, 2014 Samuel rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Edmund S. Morgan chronicles the dual ideological developments of slavery and freedom in Colonial Virginia to get at the foundational paradox of American history: in order to enjoy greater freedom, people in America have restricted the freedom of others. Although slavery as we know it--an institution where humans and their offspring are the property of owners--didn't exist in Virginia until the African slave trade made it's way from the Caribbean until the middle of the 17th century, there was al ...more
Lauren Donoho
Aug 25, 2013 Lauren Donoho rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Morgan is regarded as an epic figure in American history, and especially in slavery studies, for good cause. American Slavery, American Freedom traces the labor history of colonial Virginia, connects it to the evolving republican ideology of Virginia's planters, and subsequently manages to explain one of the great mysteries of American history: how could Jefferson, who wrote "all men are created equal," have owned slaves? How could a republic founded on a fixation with liberty have endorsed slav ...more
Jan 09, 2011 Kb rated it it was amazing
This is a masterful examination of the extent to which slavery influenced republican ideals made famous by the prominent Virginians among the nation's founders. Interestingly, slavery and racism hardly come up until the final third of the book. The previous sections begin with the late 16th century, tracing Virginia's early development, with particular attention to the big landowners and the attitudes they developed toward small planters and the poor. Racial attitudes developed while pushing nat ...more
Jason Palmer
Oct 21, 2011 Jason Palmer rated it really liked it
The first 5/6ths of the book don't even talk about slavery, but in the end you realize why this is so. The book is really about the history of the Virginia colony all the way from Roanoke. It's an extremely interesting history by itself, but it is slowly building up an understanding of why slavery became so entrenched. The reasons are surprisingly mundane and so obvious that I'd never thought of them before. One surprising revelation for me was that racism had nothing to do with slavery at firs ...more
Nov 19, 2012 Onefinemess rated it liked it
Shelves: history
The first thing I notice about a history book is how fast it reads, and this one ready pretty fast – I’m guessing some of that is because an average of 1/4 of each page was filled by citations/annotations – most of which I could skip – but even beyond that it was written in an accessible manner and moved through it pretty quickly as these things go.

This book was basically a history of Virginia, with focus on the social and political constructs that paved the way for slavery. You don’t get to the
David Bates
May 22, 2013 David Bates rated it it was amazing
In his 1975 work American Slavery, American Freedom Edmund Morgan explored the seeming paradox that liberty and slavery had developed together in North America from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. In pursuit of an answer Morgan chose Virginia as a case study, both because in the size of its slave population it was pre-eminent in British North America and because its elite produced so many distinguished founding fathers. In Morgan’s account, slavery developed as a mechanism through which ...more
May 17, 2007 Dartist rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: school teachers, history buffs
This is an excellent history/analysis of English settlement in North America, from pre-Jamestown times up to American independence, which roughly coincided with the legal establishment of our race-based system of slavery. Morgan is not only a good writer, but he lays out a thorough and well-argued case for why the English colonists switched from indentured servitude to exclusively enslaving Africans and how this (and tobacco) is what allowed the Virginia colony to become economically independent ...more
Jun 13, 2013 Ken rated it really liked it
Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. Francis Parkman Prize ed. New York: History Book Club, 2005.

Edmund Morgan’s classic work was first published in 1975 and won the Society of American Historians’ prestigious Parkman Prize for the best book in American history in 1976. I bought the book a couple of years ago from the History Book Club which had produced hardcover reprints of many Parkman Prize winners from the past. I was still in graduate scho
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“What, then, of the liberated slaves and Indians? The saddest part of the story and perhaps the most revealing is that no one bothered to say. None of the accounts either of Drake’s voyage or of the Roanoke colony mentions what became of them.” 1 likes
“And he wanted no more of those other Puritan specialties: schools and books. In Virginia, he said, “I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!” 1 likes
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