Was Our Liberty Born in Slavery?

Published:May 20, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Cumberland Landing, Virginia, 1862 [LC-B811-383]

I was reading Henry Wiencek’s 2003 book about George Washington and slavery, An Imperfect God, and came across a provocative idea about the relationship between American democracy and slavery. We’re all quite accustomed to intellectuals going on and on about this most fundamental paradox of the early American character: the Declaration of Independence on the one hand and chattel slavery on the other. In fact, a book review in the Washington Post this weekend presents its own answer to the problem:

“Americans are liars, especially to themselves.”

I suppose that may be true, but it’s also a bit too easy. (We’re all liars, after all. It’s what we lie about that reveals our true character.) Which is why I prefer this idea I found in Wiencek’s book. He sets it up by quoting the Virginia historian Carl Bridenbaugh, who wrote in 1950 about what fine leadership schools southern plantations must have been. After all, young masters like G.W. developed an early “awareness of their privileged status” and “acquire[d] the habit of command. They came into manhood prepared and expecting to rule; it was a birthright bred into their bones and nourished on plantation fare.”

Ah, to be young, rich, and the ruler of men in chains . . .

Twenty years later, historian Edmund S. Morgan took this line of thinking a step further, and this, finally, is what I find so fascinating. “In an address in 1972 to the Organization of American Historians,” Wiencek reports, “Morgan declared that slavery had paradoxically made American liberties and representative government possible.”

How so? It has to do with white indentured servants, who preceded black slaves in the colonies.

“Had the Virginians not replaced an unruly class of white indentured servants with a thoroughly subjugated class of black slaves, they would never have considered creating a society based on individual liberties; it would have been too dangerous. It was slavery, [Morgan] said, that ‘enabled Virginia to nourish representative government in a plantation society . . . [it was] slavery that made the Virginians dare to speak a political language that magnified the rights of freedom.'”

I encourage you to find Wiencek’s book and keep reading (from page 154 on). And then think about what this means. What does it mean that the language of our own political freedom might have been in part only possible because of slavery, especially when the exporting of that rhetoric and that freedom is a huge part of our foreign policy today?

IMAGE: Runaway slaves in Cumberland Landing, Virginia, 1862 (photograph by James F. Gibson)