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American Slavery, American Freedom

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  3,302 ratings  ·  124 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 December 31st 1975)
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Joseph Stieb
Jun 07, 2015 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
Porter Broyles
There are a few books in every field that are considered classics. Books that have become part of the story because the impact that they have had on the study of the subject itself.

Edmund Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom” is one of those books. Morgan won a Pultizer Prize for "for a creative and deeply influential body of work as an American historian that spans the last half century." This is one of those works.

That being said, the book is not the easiest book to read. The difficu
Jay Perkins
Jun 02, 2013 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
Eren Buğlalılar

Do not be misled by the fact that this book is about what happened in North America 300 years ago. It's a tale about modern democracies as well.

The stage is set around 1607, on the shores of Virginia. The poor, the outcasts, the bandits who were driven off from the England lest they rebel are brought to a colony. From the very beginning the author makes us reconsider our assumptions: The natives of America, whom the Europeans called barbarians, are able to enjoy their lives with ease wher
Feb 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It was hard going in the early sections of this book, but it's worth the finish. It's an illuminating and theoretically sound exploration of the roots of America's genesis. Jeffersonian republicanism embedded in the US constitution was inspired by these slave holder's first-hand accounts of oppression. With one hand, they oppressed their slaves while with the other they penned peons to freedom from oppression. They were terrified of being tyrannized by the monarchy because they knew had first ha ...more
The Nieboer-Domar thesis states that when there's a high ratio of labor to land, you can have a class of proletarians - that is, of people who are formally free but nevertheless pay tribute to others - while in a situation in which there is much land for each laborer, would-be landlords must either enslave/enserf their inferiors or do without their labor. You could profitably turn this into a sort of master theory of early American history; and though Morgan to my recollection only cites Domar's ...more
Kayla Platoff
Jan 26, 2018 rated it it was ok
Despite the term "slavery" being directly in the title, this book by Edmund Morgan spends very little time actually talking about it or the African slaves who were subjected to it. In actuality, his book is more about distinctions between poor/rich Englishmen and colonial Virginia's geographical and political landscape. While it was clear that Morgan meant to connect these ideas to how slavery came to be in the colony, there were only two chapters somewhere towards the end that were devoted to s ...more
Aug 07, 2013 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
Blythe King
Jan 04, 2013 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
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
Barksdale Penick
Sep 29, 2011 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 17, 2012 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
Sean Chick
Aug 12, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 25, 2014 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
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 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is every bit as good as praised. One of the best histories I have ever read. Book-length reply to Samuel Johnson's line, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes? I don't think I've ever read a history book that was as *suspenseful* as this book. You know he's going to get to slavery sooner or later, but the tension builds after chapter upon chapter looking at the roots of English imperialism, tensions with Native Americans, labor and class in ...more
Aug 03, 2010 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
Feb 22, 2012 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
Dec 16, 2010 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
Nov 20, 2017 rated it liked it
While I enjoyed reading this book and appreciated the way that Morgan directly addressed his methods and reasoning for some of his conclusions, I think my overall impression was hampered by the fact that I have about those conclusions in other places for so long. Thus, the main crux of the book did not feel new. Still, it is a fine example of historical writing and provided some very interesting details of early Virginia.
Laura Kaye
Jul 03, 2010 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. ...more
Stephen Matlock
Jan 26, 2013 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.
Jun 02, 2013 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
Oct 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom tells the story of how colonial-era Virginians created a society in which the ideals of freedom and liberty were publicly championed while, at the same time, hundreds of thousands of human beings were being held in chattel slavery. Morgan explains how these two contradictory ideas evolved to not just coexist but to rely so heavily on each other that it is impossible to separate the two. In fact, they became so dependent on each other that by the ...more
Jan 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have Ta-Nehisi Coates (and his compelling reading list) to thank for reading what turned out to be an absolutely vital work for anyone wishing to understand what principles and values our country was truly founded upon.

Remarkably, Morgan employs original, 1st-person research -- principally letters and laws -- to deduct a convincing, authentic analysis of how the U.S.'s first colony was built and upon which principles it operated. Spoiler alert: it's not a pretty picture. Begun in earnest as a
Feb 22, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a most fascinating narrative. I suppose that Morgan will likely take a huge amount of flak for posing that early slavery in Virginia was not directed at Africans - not that forced labor for American Indians was any better. But Morgan explains that some of the economics of England dumping its unemployment problem on its Colony played a decisive role in (not)guiding slavery as servitude morphed into slavery. The other element of the narrative is the role that tobacco played in being the ca ...more
Jul 12, 2014 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
Jun 19, 2017 rated it liked it
I picked up this book hoping to learn about the experience of poor whites and African slaves in the early years of the Virginia colony, and in particular the story behind Bacon's rebellion in 1676, a rebellion that included poor whites and slaves joining together to oppose the elitist rulers of the Virginia colony. While there was a chapter on that rebellion, most of the book was written ( like most history) from the perspective of the rich and wealthy. He portrays Native Americans (which he ref ...more
Jun 01, 2017 rated it liked it
This was an interesting book, but it did not get around to discussing American slavery in earnest until about three quarters of the way through. Until that point it was an economic and social history of Virginia. Morgan did an admirable job articulating the unique conditions that led to the rise of slavery. Most notably, few people came to Virginia as freemen. The majority were indentured servants who were held for a term of years (5-7). There were two small rebellions in the mid 17th century le ...more
Curtis Keltner
Nov 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
The introduction of to slavery in Virginia did not happen overnight; it took over a century of political and social turmoil to bring this peculiar institution to America’s shores. Historian Edmund Morgan recalls the captivating events leading up to the adoption of slavery in Virginia and the measured shift from English servitude to African slavery in American Slavery, American Freedom. Morgan explains that the subject of his book is “how republican freedom came to be supported, at least in large ...more
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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.” 2 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!” 2 likes
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