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The Origins of Slavery in the New World

Teaching ActivityTeaching Activity

Slavery and Freedom

Contributing teacher: Monica R. Gisolfi
Time period: 1670s–1770s

E-Seminar Approach
Professor Eric Foner explains in this e-seminar how slavery and freedom grew concurrently in the English colonies in North America. He states, "This is the paradox of American history: that freedom and slavery expanded simultaneously in colonial America." To resolve the paradox, students may be tempted to assume that the founding fathers were simply hypocrites, individuals who claimed to prize liberty and freedom but did not. Or they may argue that slavery is an exception in the story of American democracy, or that American democracy represents an exception to a legacy of oppression and exploitation. None of these explanations suffice. Professor Edmund S. Morgan examines this paradox in his pathbreaking study American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975). Morgan writes that "the rights of Englishmen were preserved by destroying the rights of Africans." American freedom and democracy, Morgan concludes, rested on the foundation of American slavery.

Suggested Teaching Activity
To examine the paradox described above, ask your students to do the following:

Discussion Questions
Below are questions to stimulate a discussion of Morgan's thesis and relevant primary sources. Following each question are sample answers; these answers ideally represent what students should infer from the Morgan article, the Foner e-seminar, and the excerpt from Nathaniel Bacon's "Declaration of the People."

1. What is a paradox?
  • Something that displays contradictory qualities.
2. In what sense did the founding fathers exhibit paradoxical behavior or thought?
  • The founding fathers sought and espoused freedom and independence as they enslaved Africans and their American-born offspring.
  • As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) wrote, "All men are created equal," while owning more than 100 slaves.
3. Were the founding fathers hypocrites?
  • Morgan dismisses the notion that the founding fathers were hypocrites. They were individuals who believed deeply in freedom and self-government, while many were slaveholders. Morgan suggests that the task is "to explain how such men could have arrived at beliefs and actions so full of contradictions." To explain this contradiction, Morgan examines Virginia during the 1670s, a volatile period in that colony's development.
4. Explain what Virginia society looked like in the 1670s. In what sense was it an unstable place?
  • Each year, more and more indentured servants became free. A growing number of freemen were unable to afford land. Those who could afford land often purchased it along the frontier and were subject to Native American attacks.
  • By 1676, these former indentured servants made up roughly one-fourth of Virginia's population.
  • These freemen were young, rebellious, and armed.
  • These freemen envied the landed elite and rose up against them during Bacon's Rebellion.
5. Why did freemen rebel against the landed elite during Bacon's Rebellion? Use this question as an opportunity for your students to analyze Nathaniel Bacon's "Declaration of the People," proclaimed in 1676.
  • Nathaniel Bacon's "Declaration of the People" lists the grievances of freemen. Bacon (1647–76) charged that Governor William Berkeley (1606–77) levied unjust taxes, failed to advance trade within the colony, failed to protect the colonists from Native American invasion, and governed without the interests of the king's subjects in mind. Bacon and his band of followers, all white freemen, claimed that their rights as English subjects had been violated.
6. Why did slavery replace indentured servitude? How did slavery alleviate the problems associated with indentured servants and freemen? How did slavery create order?
  • Bacon's Rebellion convinced colonial authorities that the growing number of white freemen threatened the property rights of the landed gentry.
  • A system of inherited slave labor would ensure the stability of Virginia, because African-born slaves would be self-perpetuating and unable to claim the rights of English subjects. Through the legal system, slaves could be barred from free association and prohibited from bearing arms.
7. In what sense does American democracy rest on American slavery? In his article, how does Professor Morgan answer this question?
  • The landed elite had tried and failed to deny rights and privileges to freemen.
  • As the number of slaves entering the colony exceeded the number of indentures, freemen became a less threatening group. In the years that followed Bacon's Rebellion, colonial authorities codified a more rigid slave code and reduced restrictions on voting qualifications for white men. In many cases, freemen gained the vote. Over time, freemen aspired to become slaveholders.


Video transcript of Eric Foner discussing Bacon's Rebellion, in The Struggle for Freedom.

Nathaniel Bacon's "Declaration of the People".

Excerpts from Edmund Morgan's, "Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox"
Annotation: Professor Morgan analyzes the concomitant rise of slavery and democracy in the colonial Chesapeake, arguing that it constitutes the central paradox of American history. Take note of how Morgan explains the rise of slavery in the Chesapeake. Consider how social and economic conditions in the colonial Chesapeake gave rise to both slavery and democracy.
American historians interested in tracing the rise of liberty, democracy, and the common man have been challenged in the past two decades by other historians concerned with tracing the history of oppression, exploitation, and racism. The challenge made us examine more directly than historians hitherto have been willing to do, the role of slavery in our early history. Colonial historians, in particular, when writing about the origin and development of American institutions have found it possible until recently to deal with slavery as an exception to everything they had to say. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have insisted that slavery was something more than an exception, that one-fifth of the American population at the time of the Revolution is too many people to be treated as an exception.

We shall not have met the challenge simply by studying the history of that one-fifth, fruitful as such studies may be, urgent as they may be. Nor shall we have met the challenge if we merely execute the familiar maneuver of turning our old interpretations on their heads. The temptation is already apparent to argue that slavery and oppression were the dominant features of American history and that efforts to advance liberty and equality were the exception, indeed no more than a device to divert the masses while their chains were being fastened. To dismiss the rise of liberty and equality in American history as a mere sham is not only to ignore hard facts, it is also to evade the problem presented by those facts. The rise of liberty and equality in this country was accompanied by the rise of slavery. That two such contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over a long period of history, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is the central paradox of American history.

The challenge, for a colonial historian at least, is 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.

It has been tempting to dismiss Jefferson and the whole Virginia dynasty as hypocrites. But to do so is to deprive the term "hypocrisy" of useful meaning. If hypocrisy means, as I think it does, deliberately to affirm a principle without believing it, then hypocrisy requires a rare quality of mind combined with an unscrupulous intention to deceive. To attribute such an intention, even to attribute such clarity of mind in the matter, to Jefferson, Madison, or Washington is to once again evade the challenge. What we need to explain is how such men could have arrived at beliefs and actions so full of contradiction.

Put the challenge another way: how did England, a country priding itself on the liberty of its citizens, produce colonies where most of the inhabitants enjoyed still greater liberty, greater opportunities, greater control over their own lives than most men in the mother country, while the remainder, one-fifth of the total, were deprived of virtually all liberty, all opportunities, all control over their own lives? We may admit that the Englishmen who colonized America and their revolutionary descendants were racists, that consciously or unconsciously they believed liberties and rights should be confined to persons of light complexion. When we have said as much, even when we have probed the depths of racial prejudice, we will not have fully accounted for the paradox. Racism was certainly an essential element in it, but I should like to suggest another element, that I believe to have influenced the development of both slavery and freedom as we have known them in the United States. . . .

One development was crucial, and that was the appearance in Virginia of a growing number of freemen who had served their terms but who were now unable to afford land of their own except on the frontiers. By 1676 it was estimated that one-fourth of Virginia's freemen were without land of their own. The presence of this growing class of poverty-stricken Virginians was not a little frightening to the planters who had made it to the top. They wanted the [indentured servant] immigrants who kept pouring in every year. Indeed, they needed them . . . but as more [indentured servants] turned free every year Virginia seemed to have inherited the problem that she was helping England to solve. Virginia, complained [the] secretary of the colony, was "a sinke to drayen England of her filth and scum."

The men who worried the upper-crust looked even more dangerous in Virginia than they had in England. They were, to begin with, young, and the young have always seemed impatient of control by their elders and superiors, if not downright rebellious. They were also predominantly single men . . . Finally, what made these wild young men particularly dangerous was that they were armed and had to be armed.

Virginia's poor had reason to be envious and angry and against the men who owned the land and imported the servants and ran the government. The nervousness of those who had property worth plundering continued throughout the century. [One solution] was to extend the terms of service for servants entering the colony but [as] the ranks of freedmen grew, so did poverty and discontent. [But there was a] solution which allowed Virginia's magnates to keep their lands, yet arrested the discontent and the repression of other Englishmen [living in Virginia]. The rights of Englishmen were preserved by destroying the rights of Africans.

Slaves could be deprived of the opportunity for association and rebellion. They could be kept unarmed and unorganized. And since color disclosed their probable status, the rest of society could keep close watch on
them. . . .

[The freedman] was no longer a man to be feared. This fact, together with the presence of a growing mass of alien slaves, tended to draw the white settlers closer together and to reduce the importance of class difference between yeoman farmer and large plantation owner.
Edmund S. Morgan, "Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox," The Journal of American History 59, no. 1 (June, 1972): 5-29.

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