Everything Old is New Again (sort of)

For class yesterday we read Edmund Morgan’s classic article, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox.” The article is forty-three years old; its author would be an even century. Its selection was the result of a late adjustment to our syllabus. Our digital humanities project needed to be switched up a bit in terms of deadlines, and that left an empty space on the agenda for yesterday. I’ve had a lot of fun following the Junto’s March Madness competition for the best article in early American history, and, as I’ve written about before, the students in my class have placed slavery at the heart of questions about religion, even when their sources do not. So, I thought it was a good time to revisit a classic explanation for what Morgan describes as the central paradox of American history: “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.” [6]

Before class, I was worried that the article wouldn’t wear as well as I hoped. The first time I read it, in graduate school, it was half the age it is now. (Come to think of it, so am I.) I was thinking about how to frame it in its historiographical moment, and I was grappling with the kinds of questions that Joe Adelman so ably described today at the Junto about teaching an older historiography.

The result was completely different. Yesterday, that article was about Trump (explicitly in discussion) and Bernie (implicitly). Students rightly and immediately grabbed onto Morgan’s discussion of early modern fears of the poor, of displaced workers bringing in crime and moral decay, and of debt. These are not abstract issues today – they are at the core of our political life. Our discussion ran to the questions of what economic “independence” would mean today? No one, as one student pointed out, is debt free in our economy. Who is independent enough to have a free voice? The top three percent? Is that in the Revolutionary era or today, I had to ask. The student was referring to the past, but I think it’s probably an accurate number of how many Jefferson would see in today’s transformed, post-industrial economy as truly independent. Morgan’s article, in short, was a brilliant way to think about the challenges of the Revolution in economic terms, and how our world measures up on those scales. Our discussion made me wish we could detour farther and read the rich historiography on that subject.

But I was disappointed too. Students recognized that there is a connection between the economic issues involved in debt and Trump’s racist demagoguery. Morgan’s article didn’t help us much here. Morgan made racial thinking a side issue. He wanted to explain the paradox in terms where slavery was integral, but not its racial nature. He argued that slavery, as an economic institution designed to contain disorder, came to the colonies not as (citing Winthrop Jordan) “an unthinking decision,” but rather “without decision,” “automatically, as Virginians bought the cheapest labor they could get.”[24-25] This argument preserves the dignity of people like Jefferson and Madison, and it distances them and the system they oversaw from the kind of racism promoted by Trump.

Here’s where I felt that the Morgan work was dated. Understanding the thorough integration of racial thinking in every aspect of society, including religion, is an essential part of understanding the development of slavery. Some of its leaders were more skilled than others at distancing themselves from the ugliness. Many scholars since Morgan have demonstrated just that, and I missed that work yesterday. Trying to fill it in at double speed was inadequate. Fortunately, we have the wonderful Annette Gordon-Reed on campus in a couple weeks talking about Reconstruction.



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