The authors of the anthology introduce slavery with the observation that perhaps no other element of American history is as guilt-ridden, and that historians are not immune from the emotional power of slavery or contemporary race issues. “Had the country been conceived of as existing primarily for the benefit of its actual inhabitants,” they say, things might have been much different. This reminder that colonialism and its pace of development was directed by the European powers spreads some of the guilt, but certainly doesn’t shift it from American shoulders.

On the other hand, a lot of work seems to have been done in recent years, situating slavery in the development both of capitalism and of the “atlantic world.” International trade, which “immensely stimulated the production of staple crops” at the expense of a more balanced, internally-focused agricultural economy, encouraged large-scale operations and slavery as an economically “rational” solution for labor. (We still need to develop an economics that prevents short-sighted, immoral, and socially destructive practices like slavery from seeming rational.)

W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, Winthrop Jordan, Richard Dunn, and David Brion Davis all look like people I’ll want to circle back around to, when I have the time. The two selections in the chapter, one by Breen and Innes and the other by Higginbotham, address the question of which came first, slavery or racism?

Breen and Innes begin (the excerpt is from
“Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676) by reminding the reader that “Men have been enslaving one another for over three thousand years, receiving philosophic justification from every major Western thinker from Plato to Locke.” They claim “there was nothing inevitable about the course of race relations, at least in the years before Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The idea that “race itself becomes a sufficient cause for behavior,” they say, “flies in the face of social reality.”

Breen and Innes criticize authors who rely too heavily on Virginia statute law. “Statutes usually speak falsely as to actual behavior,” they say, quoting Winthrop Jordan, who went on to try to justify his use of them. They reject Jordan’s argument that statutes at least reveal “communal attitudes;” countering that “many whites were indentured servants,” who felt so much common cause with their black neighbors that “the House of Burgesses became sufficiently worried about the unruliness of the colony’s landless white freemen that they disenfranchised them.” In fact, they suggest, later Virginia statutes can be viewed as attempts to pry apart poor white and black Virginians, to prevent them from challenging the Colony’s power structure.

Much has been made of a piece of 1640 legislation that has been interpreted as an order to disarm black Virginians. Breen and Innes show this to be an error, reviewing the wording of the law and citing later court records dealing with guns which clearly do not deny blacks the right to bear arms. They review several cases in which runaways were caught and punished, which have been used to suggest unequal treatment. Breen and Innes admit this possibility, but call attention to the fact that blacks and whites ran away together, apparently trusting each other with their safety and futures, if not their lives. This reinforces their point, that “the possibility of large-scale, interracial cooperation continued to worry the leaders of Virginia.”

Finally, Breen and Innes challenge the argument that court records that list the race of participants are evidence of racism. The records did not in fact list race all the time, they say. “Many routine items – the sale of land and livestock for example—did not carry the convenient racial indicators.” Once historians realize that some of the “normal” court transactions involved black people, they say, they may be able to widen their view of black history beyond the “sexual and criminal activities that presently occupy a disproportionate place in the analysis of early American race relations.”

The second selection, from
Shades of Freedom by A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., probably should have been put first in this chapter. Breen and Innes were clearly criticizing this author and his belief that the early Virginia legal tradition represents an effort by racist whites to institute race differentiation as a precursor to establishing lifelong, hereditary slavery. Higginbotham, a former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, limits his discussion to the judicial record. There are no details in his analysis from outside the judgments.

“When the first Africans arrived at Virginia in August 1619,” Higginbotham says, “they were initially accorded an indentured servant status similar to that of most Virginia colonists.” While he admits that unlike indentured whites, the blacks came involuntarily with no contract for eventual release, he says an equally important reason for their difference from white servants was that “since the fifteenth century, Englishmen had regarded blackness as “the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.” Higginbotham seems to be quoting Jordan, and apparently believes this attribution proves the claim, because he doesn’t try to support it further.

I’m actually really pleased that I was able to comment on Breen and Innes first, because it gave me an opportunity to talk about something
other than religion. Unfortunately, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Higginbotham’s premise in Shades of Freedom is that the notion of black inferiority was the chicken to slavery’s egg. His experience as a federal judge showed him that a presumption of inferiority continued to influence the highest levels of public policy. Fighting this prejudice is a heroic goal; unfortunately, Higginbotham’s claims about racism in this selection can be sustained only if you avoid looking at the elephant in the room with him, which is religion.

“Prior to 1680,” Higginbotham says, “the colonies would often follow the Spanish and English practice that blacks who had been baptized into the Christian religion were to be accorded the privileges of a free person.” He doesn’t specify what these privileges were – clearly becoming Christian didn’t make you free. This is demonstrated by one of the cases Higginbotham goes on to cite.

In the first case,
Re Tuchinge, 1624, “John Phillip A negro Christened in England” is allowed to testify against a white defendant. Higginbotham claims the language shows the court’s assumption of a black man’s inferiority: “In a jurisdiction where black did not carry the stigma of inferiority…the blemish of his race would not need to be washed clean by the grace of his Christian religion.” That’s a possible explanation. Another is, that non-Christians could not swear and testify in court. They had no standing in the English legal system (the “disability” of non-Christians lasted into the nineteenth century in England). A black man would be assumed to be a non-Christian, unless proven otherwise.

In 1630, the second judgment,
Re Davis, has the defendant being “soundly whipt before an assembly of negroes & others for abusing himself to the dishon[o]r of God and shame of Christianity by defiling his body in lying with a negro.” Higginbotham infers that Hugh Davis is white, because his race is not mentioned. His offense, described as a crime against Christianity, is according to Higginbotham that he slept with a black woman. The whipping in front of “negroes & others” is “especially humiliating, because he would have been debased in front of individuals who were his legal inferiors.”

Higginbotham’s explanation seems strained, in a culture where “a white master had the right to demand sexual compliance of his female slaves, just as surely as he had the right to ride his mares. This practice…was, to be sure, already tolerated in secret as a matter of privilege in 1630.” If, as he says later, Davis was a poor man who would not be entitled to such privileges, would he have felt the humiliation Higginbotham suggests? And in any case, if we’re looking for crimes against Christianity, “abuses” that “defile” a person, isn’t it more likely that Davis (whether black or white) and the “negro” he lay with were both male? Is it just an editor’s slip that has Higginbotham concluding that in the case “the black person’s irredeemable inferiority was measured by
his presence as the reason for the white man’s punishment”?

In 1640, another sex case,
Re Sweat, has the court whipping a pregnant black woman and forcing the white father to do “public penance for his offence at James city church.” Higginbotham says the judgment focuses on humiliation rather than compensation to the woman’s owner for the fact that “during the pregnancy and post-childbirth period, she probably became less valuable,” completely ignoring that since no mention is made of the child, the slave woman’s owner apparently gets to keep her (assuming she survives the whipping). Higginbotham is so convinced of the shame of sleeping with a black woman, that to him the meaningless slap on the wrist of “penance” is worse than the “monetary damages” Sweat wasn’t forced to pay.

The final case,
In Re Graweere, describes how John Graweere, a black slave, bought his son’s freedom from the mother’s owner. When John’s owner made a claim, on the basis of his ownership of the father, the court ruled in John’s favor and freed the son. Higginbotham says the decision turned on John’s promise that the boy “would be made a Christian and be taught and exercised in the church of England.” The court declared “the child shall be free…to be and remain at the disposing and education of the said Graweere and the child’s godfather who undertaketh to see it brought up in the Christian religion as aforesaid.”

Higginbotham says “this case is correctly interpreted as significant evidence that, by 1641, the legal process had not contemplated the institution of hereditary slavery.” But if this is the case, why was it necessary for John Graweere to
buy his son away from the boy’s owner? Higginbotham deduces that Graweere is probably not a Christian himself, which seems reasonable. But then he jumps to the conclusion that the godfather mentioned in the judgment must be white. Wouldn’t it be reasonable, if the father was non-Christian, for the court to be interested in the Christian godfather’s role in training the boy? Wouldn’t it be likely, if Higginbotham’s claims are correct and racism is creeping into the picture, that something as unusual as a white godfather promising to train a freed slave boy, might be mentioned more explicitly?

Higginbotham claims that “if the precept of black inferiority meant anything, it certainly meant that, in the court’s estimation, the child’s Christian education would have been better safeguarded if entrusted to the care of a white colonist than if placed in the hands of a black servant, Christian or otherwise.” It seems less of a strain to conclude that “the precept of black inferiority” actually
didn’t mean anything, in this time and place. Higginbotham also claims that if a black godfather could insure the boy’s Christianity, then blacks would have converted “en masse” and petitioned the court for their freedom. He forgets that John Graweere had bought his son’s freedom, and the court was simply protecting him from a claim that would have undermined property conventions that were, contrary to Higginbotham’s claim, moving towards institutionalizing hereditary slavery.

Higginbotham finds racism in these accounts, and maybe it’s there. But the language of the judgments suggests the court was at least as concerned about religion. In the final case, he says large numbers of blacks would convert in order to improve their circumstances. Passing over his mistaken equation of Christianity with freedom, it does seem that Christian blacks enjoyed privileges and status denied to the unconverted. So, why didn’t more blacks become Christians?

Higginbotham says the sexual crimes were dealt with harshly because the two white men involved were “poor whites or servants who had managed to sleep with black women.” If this was the case, why did one court decision carefully record the black person’s owner, while the other made no mention of it? While it does seem reasonable to think the authorities may have wanted to minimize fraternization between potentially rebellious black and white populations, was rebellion even an issue at the time of these cases?

If we take a cue from Higginbotham, and assume the cases in court records tell us something about what’s going on in society, what do these cases suggest? Certainly, that there was a lot of sex happening, that religious and civil authorities wanted to prevent. Maybe that some of this illicit sex was leading to pairings (marriages, families, domestic alliances) that circumvented normal social channels and the controls of proper marriage, inheritance, and even property rights (if we conclude, contrary to Higginbotham, that the whites were already institutionalizing permanent, hereditary slavery). In each of the cases, Christianity is at least as visible a factor as race, and the blacks’ status as non-Christians is central to the problem. Maybe the hidden social issue was that there was something in black culture that prevented slaves from becoming Christian to improve their social status. A cultural element that gave them something more valuable, which they weren’t willing to turn their backs on. Just the type of thing you’d want to eliminate, if you were planning to establish lifelong, hereditary slavery.