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American Slavery, American Freedom

4.07 of 5 stars 4.07  ·  rating details  ·  1,230 ratings  ·  52 reviews
In this study of the tragic contradiction at the heart of America, Edward Morgan looks for answers to the people and politics of Virginia - a state that was both the birthplace of the revolution and the largest slaveholding state in the country.
Paperback, 464 pages
Published October 17th 2003 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 1975)
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Robert Owen
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...more
Blythe King
“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
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
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
Sara-Maria Sorentino
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
Jay Perkins
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...more
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
Stephen Matlock
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
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.
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
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...more
Simon Wood

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...more
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
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
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
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
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...more
David Bates
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 5 of 5 stars
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
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...more
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...more
Although a bit pedantic at times, this is an excellent overview of early colonial life, the challenges of adequate and fair leadership, the apparent American knack for developing a wide chasm of "haves" and "have nots," and the sad but logical course of indentured servitude to slavery. A must-read for anyone interested in early American history and its impact on the road towards Civil War.
Michael Zell
Although not a new book, it is spot-on about the centrality of slavery to so-called 'American democracy'. Morgan concentrates on colonial Virginia, and shows how the use of slave labour by white farmers/plantation owners became established side by side with 'democratic' institutions in the 18th century. In a way, the cheap labour provided by African and African-American slaves made possible the democratic 'rights' and processes enjoyed by free, white Americans. The connection between slavery and...more
Let me preface by saying that I'm not a regular non-fiction reader. I had a hard time finishing this book and the title was a little misleading. I thought it would answer questions as to HOW we became a country of slave owners when our philosophies espouse freedom for all people who are created equal in God's eyes.
Really, it was more a history of Virginia and the iniquities laid down by the British king. Definitely expanded my knowledge and my spelling nerd self started questioning WHY we decide...more
The majority of this book focuses on the first 75 years or so of English colonization in Virginia and the series of actions that led to an economy based on slave labor and, since the slaves were all black or native, to racial prejudice. By comparison, Morgan's discussion of how republican ideas caught hold seems rushed. Maybe I missed something. It was really late by the time I got to those final few chapters (300+ pages in...). All the ideas seemed to come from Britain. But Virginia/the US deve...more
This is one of the most meticulous and compelling histories I've ever read. I wanted to call it "masterful," but that would be a horrible pun for this subject matter.

I already knew this about white supremacy, racism, and class in our country, but I challenge anyone to read this book and still be able to argue with any intellectual integrity that white supremacy and racism (especially as they intertwine with class) are not embedded in the very cultural fiber of these United States.

"Discontent wit...more
Sean Chick
At times this book seems to drone on and on and Morgan has a taste for the tangential. However, it makes for compelling reading. This a dark work of consensus history in which America’s racism and liberty are seen as both connected and long in the making. The darkness comes with Morgan’s assertion that freedom and slavery can exist together. This book represents a shift in American scholarship, away from sunny optimism and hopeful activism, and towards the idea that there is something inherently...more
Jan 02, 2008 Anna rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: someone who wants to rethink history.
even though this was the 2nd time I've read this book (both times for a class!), I found it a lot more interesting the second time around! I'm not sure why, but I seemed to get more from it the 2nd time around. This book is an amazing in how it traces the development of the virginia colony and how freedom in Virginia (and the rest of the colonies) is inextricably linked to slavery. It really made me rethink my view of the founding of the southern colonies. For Virginia, it was about money- how t...more
Follows the history of Virginia from the first attempt at colonization to the early 18th century. Documents how labor went from being indentured servants from the English lower classes to being African slaves. Explores how this transition affected many aspects of the social : relation between upper and lower class whites, racial attitudes, and even the views of freedom that a few years later drove the American Revolution. Of course it is important for the background leading up to the Civil War,...more
Mike Horne
This is an excellent book. I think I got to page 200 without meeting a slave! Morgan really shows you the story of the indentured servant/free white landless worker. I was reading the AP Question about the origin and development of slavery (1607-1776). And it got me to thinking "What kind of alternative history could have developed a slave free American society by 1776?"
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