In this post, I explore insights from two important books about the peculiar way in which liberty and slavery jointly emerged from the context of colonial America. One is a new book by David Stasavage, The Decline and Rise of Democracy. The other is a 1992 book by Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The core point I draw from Stasavage is that the same factors that nurtured the development of political liberty in the American context also led to the development of slavery. The related point I draw from Morrison is that the existence of slavery was fundamental in energizing the colonists’ push for self rule.
The Stasavage book explores the history of democracy in the world, starting with early forms that emerged in premodern North America, Europe, and Africa and then fell into decline, followed by the rise of modern parliamentary democracy. He contrasts this with an alternative form of governance, autocracy, which grew up in a large number of times and places but appeared earliest and most enduringly in China.
He argues that three conditions were necessary for the emergence of early democracy. One is small scale, which allows people to confer as a group instead of relying on a distant leader. Another is that rulers lack the knowledge about what people were producing, such as an administrative bureaucracy could provide, which means they needed to share power in order to be able to levy taxes effectively. But I want to focus on the third factor — the existence of an exit option — which is most salient to the colonial American case. Here’s how he describes it:
The third factor that led to early democracy involved the balance between how much rulers needed their people and how much people could do without their rulers. When rulers had a greater need for revenue, they were more likely to accept governing in a collaborative fashion, and this was even more likely if they needed people to fight wars. With inadequate means of simply compelling people to fight, rulers offered them political rights. The flip side of all this was that whenever the populace found it easier to do without a particular ruler—say by moving to a new location—then rulers felt compelled to govern more consensually. The idea that exit options influence hierarchy is, in fact, so general it also applies to species other than humans. Among species as diverse as ants, birds, and wasps, social organization tends to be less hierarchical when the costs of what biologists call “dispersal” are low.
The central factor that supported the development of democracy in the British colonies was the scarcity of labor:
A broad manhood suffrage took hold in the British part of colonial North America not because of distinctive ideas but for the simple reason that in an environment where land was abundant and labor was scarce, ordinary people had good exit options. This was the same fundamental factor that had favored democracy in other societies.
And this was also the factor that promoted slavery: “Political rights for whites and slavery for Africans derived from the same underlying environmental condition of labor scarcity.” Because of this scarcity, North American agricultural enterprises in the colonies needed a way to ensure a flow of laborers to the colonies and a way to keep them on the job once they got there. The central mechanisms for doing that were indentured servitude and slavery. Some indentured servants were recruited in Britain with the promise of free passage to the new world in return for a contract to work for a certain number of years. Others were simply kidnapped, shipped, and then forced to work off their passage. At the same time Africans initially came to the colonies in a variety of statuses, but this increasingly shifted toward full slavery. Here’s how he describes the situation in Tidewater colonies.
The early days of forced shipment of English to Virginia sounds like it would have been an environment ripe for servitude once they got there. In fact, it did not always work that way. Once they finished their period of indenture, many English migrants established farms of their own. This exit option must have been facilitated by the fact that they looked like Virginia’s existing British colonists, and they also sounded like them. They would have also shared a host of other cultural commonalities. In other words, they had a good outside option.
Now consider the case of Africans in Virginia, Maryland, and the other British colonies in North America who began arriving in 1619. The earliest African arrivals to Virginia and Maryland came in a variety of situations. Some were free and remained so, some were indentured under term contracts analogous to those of many white migrants, and some came entirely unfree. Outside options also mattered for Africans, and for several obvious reasons they were much worse than those for white migrants. Africans looked different than English people, they most often would not have arrived speaking English, or being aware of English cultural practices, and there is plenty of evidence that people in Elizabethan and Jacobean England associated dark skin with inferiority or other negative qualities. Outside options for Africans were remote to nonexistent. The sustainability of slavery in colonies like Virginia and Maryland depended on Africans not being able to escape and find labor elsewhere. For slave owners it of course helped that they had the law on their side. This law evolved quickly to define exactly what a “slave” was, there having been no prior juridical definition of the term. Africans were now to be slaves whereas kidnapped British boys were bound by “the custom of the country,” meaning that eventual release could be expected.
So labor scarcity and the existence of an attractive exit option provided the formative conditions for developing both white self-rule and Black enslavement.
Toni Morrison’s book is an reflection on the enduring impact of whiteness and blackness in shaping American literature. In the passage below, from the chapter titled “Romancing the Shadow,” she is talking about the romantic literary tradition in the U.S.
There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called “the power of blackness,” especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated. The slave population, it could be and was assumed, offered itself up as surrogate selves for meditation on problems of human freedom, its lure and its elusiveness. This black population was available for meditations on terror — the terror of European outcasts, their dread of failure, powerlessness, Nature without limits, natal loneliness, internal aggression, evil, sin, greed. In other words , this slave population was understood to have offered itself up for reflections on human freedom in terms other than the abstractions of human potential and the rights of man.
The ways in which artists — and the society that bred them — transferred internal conflicts to a “blank darkness,” to conveniently bound and violently silenced black bodies, is a major theme in American literature. The rights of man, for example, an organizing principle upon which the nation was founded, was inevitably yoked to Africanism. Its history, its origin is permanently allied with another seductive concept: the hierarchy of race…. The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom — if it did not in fact create it — like slavery.
Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism — a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.
Such a lovely passage describing such an ugly distinction. She’s saying that for Caucasian plantation owners in the Tidewater colonies, the presence of Black slaves was a vivid and visceral reminder of what it means to be not-free and thus decidedly not-me. For people like Jefferson and Washington and Madison, the most terrifying form of unfreedom was in their faces every day. More than their pale brethren in the Northern colonies, they had a compelling desire to never be treated by the king even remotely like the way they treated their own slaves.
“The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom — if it did not in fact create it — like slavery.”