The Midwife of American Freedom

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In the course of researching my books, I've gone back to read over Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom. (I originally wrote about Morgan here.) I rarely reread whole books within five years of each other, but Morgan's work stuck with me in a way that I've never experienced.

The second time around was even better. Morgan's work deserves a much, much wider audience. To wit:

The connection between American slavery and freedom is evident at many levels if we care to see it. Think, for a moment, of the traditional American insistence on freedom of the seas. "Free ships make free goods" was the cardinal doctrine of American foreign policy in the revolutionary era. But the goods for which the United States demanded freedom were produced in very large measure by slave labor. 

 The irony is more than semantic. American reliance on slave labor must be viewed in the context of the American struggle for a separate and equal station among the nations of the earth. At the time the colonists announced their claim to that station, they had neither the arms nor the ships to make that claim good. They desperately needed the assistance of other countries, especially France, and their single most valuable product with which to purchase assistance was tobacco, produced mainly by slave labor. 

So largely did tobacco figure in American foreign relations that one historian has referred to the activities of France in supporting the Americans as "King Tobacco Diplomacy," a reminder that the position of the United States in the world depended not only in 1776 but during the span of a long lifetime thereafter on slave labor. To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.

Morgan's basic contention, one which I increasingly find convincing, is that American slavery made American freedom possible. Thus, it is an understatement--and perhaps even a falsehood--to cast slavery, as Condoleeza Rice has, as the "birth defect" of American freedom. The term "birth defect" conveys the notion of other possibilities and unfortunate accidents. But Morgan would argue slavery didn't just happen as a byproduct, it was the steward. Put differently, slavery is America's midwife, not it's birth defect.

My own formulation for my text aims to push this notion further: America was not only made possible by slavery, it was made possible by prosecuting a perpetual war against its slaves, without which there may never have been an "America."

Even as I say this, questions and problems occur for me. The use of the word "war" carries with it a notion of intention, consciousness, something which I think is present at some moments (in antebellum America) and absent, or diffuse, in others (colonial America.) 

More tangibly, can you have a war when the people with guns do not acknowledge it as such? Surely, Thomas Jefferson did not see himself as "making war" on his enslaved populace. And yet when Jefferson died, most of the slaves at Monticello were sold to settle his debts:

"a small-town editor in a Susquehanna River town asked how Jefferson, 'surely the champion of civil liberty to the American people,' left 'so many human beings in fetters to be indiscriminately sold to the highest bidder.' In biting words, the editor wrote: 'Heaven inspired Jefferson with the knowledge 'that all men are created equal.' He was not forgetful--in his last moments he 'commended his soul to God, and his daughter to his country;' but to whom did he commend his wretched slaves?'"

My contention is that Jefferson subjected the slave community at Monticello to existential violence. He doubtlessly destroyed familial bonds--children forever parted mothers, wives forever removed from husbands, brothers forever taken from sisters. It is true the slaves weren't killed, but they were effectively rendered dead to each other. They were subject to a kind of banishment to Limbo, one which--by the approach of the Civil War--some one in three slaves would experience.

There's more to be said--enslaved African women lived basic lived under a regime of legalized mass rape, the effects of which so many of us carry in our very bones. There's the way in which white identity was constructed, and the way the status of indentured servants and white freedman rose in the 17th century, just as the status of black people fell. 

We'll talk about all of this more in my follow-up posts. But one notion which I bear little respect for, is the idea that the term "war" should be reserved for countries that can field mass quantities of armed men. I am reminded of the old quote that the difference between a dialect and a language is that the latter enjoys an army. 

Moreover, surely if we can take Al Qaeda's actions as a declaration of war, if we can declare war on "terror" on "drugs on "illiteracy," if Gaddafi can be said to have "made war upon his people," then I find little wrong with the claim that a country can declare war upon its own. 

More to come. About Morgan. About everything. These are simply my thoughts thus far.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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