Colonial Virginia
Colonial Virginia
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Race in Colonial Virginia

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of Race

The White Virginian's Burden

By the end of the colonial era, white Virginians often described slavery as a tragic burden—an unfortunate practice left to them by their ancestors. They hated the institution as much, and probably more, they claimed, than the outsiders who did not witness its horrors on a daily basis. But they were stuck with it, they lamented, saddled through their lives with the sin of their ancient relatives.

It was a curious position—part apologetic, part apology. But it was disingenuous, if not flat out dishonest. For slavery was not really the product of Virginia's distant past, nor was it reluctantly inherited by a more enlightened generation. The slavery these Revolutionary-era Virginians practiced developed in their own century—to a large extent in their own time—and they bore equal, if not greater responsibility for its continuing existence.

Slavery's Seventeenth Century Origins

To be fair, the first evidence of Virginia slavery does lie in the mid-seventeenth century. While the colony's first Africans reached Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants, as early as the 1640s scattered references suggest that Virginians were beginning to treat their black servants differently than their white ones. And by 1660, it is clear that the most fundamental characteristics of American slavery had emerged—Africans were held in bondage permanently and they passed on their status to their children.

It is also in the late seventeenth century that we can identify those critical factors that would accelerate the transition from a white indentured labor force to slavery. For example, during the last decades of the seventeenth century, the supply of white servants decreased as England's economy improved. During these decades, Virginia's mortality rates also improved enough to make slave labor a profitable investment. Prior to this time, the likelihood that a slave would live long enough to enable a buyer to recapture his initial cash outlay was not great. Only about half of all laborers, indentured or enslaved, survived their first five years in Virginia. Given this stark fact, why would a planter purchase a slave when he could buy an indentured servant, with a five-year term, at half the price? And finally, Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 reminded planters of the dangers attached to importing a large number of white indentured servants. Eventually, these men became free—and often disgruntled—small farmers. There was no need to provide rabble-rousers like Nathaniel Bacon with an even larger pool of rabble.

By 1700, these factors had encouraged Virginia planters to turn to African slave labor. In this sense, the ever-suffering pose adopted by the planters of the Revolutionary era was a bit correct. But still, the practice of slavery developed slowly during its earliest years. There were probably no more than 2000 slaves in all of Virginia in 1675, and the slave ships that begin traveling to the Chesapeake during these decades only brought a couple hundred slaves each year, not thousands.18 As a result, in 1690, the colony's slave population still totaled less than 5000.

Slavery's Growth in the Eighteenth Century

But over the next 80 years, slavery grew exponentially. Close to 90,000 slaves were delivered to Virginia between 1690 and 1775. And augmented by natural increase, Virginia's slave population reached 100,000 by 1750, and 200,000 by 1775.19 But it was not just in its size that slavery changed during the eighteenth century. As the institution grew, so too did the communities—both black and white—in which slaves and slave owners lived out their lives.

In the previous century, virtually all of the slaves imported were young men—and in the tobacco fields they worked alongside white servants. Under these conditions planters, quite possibly, convinced themselves that their African workers lay just a notch below their similarly unfree white laborers. And as there were so few slaves, and even fewer female slaves, planters could also believe that they were engaging in a transient practice. In addition, the slaves these planters brought from Africa seemed strikingly unlike themselves. They spoke no English, they worshipped strange gods, and they practiced unfamiliar rituals. Within these "uncivilized" behaviors Virginians could find justifications for their own uncivilized labor practice.

But by the middle of the eighteenth century, these illusions were more difficult to maintain. As the slave population climbed, planters could no longer fantasize that slavery was a temporary measure. And while the slave's color still provided a stark reminder of difference, many of other dissimilarities used to rationalize slavery disappeared. No longer a population of recently kidnapped men, America's slaves were overwhelmingly American-born. In fact, by 1775, four out of five slaves in America were born in America.20 They spoke English, embraced Christianity, married, and had children. They formed themselves into complex communities, and just as significantly, they joined with the whites who enslaved them in a common community. African women nursed white infants, black children played with the sons and daughters of their white owners, and black women bore the children of white men.

The form of slavery that existed by 1775 was therefore more deeply entrenched and, in a twisted sort of way, more fully integrated within the rest of southern society. And the slave owners that presided over this institution—those who bewailed the heavy legacy of their shortsighted ancestors—were in many more thoroughly engaged in the institution, and more responsible for its evils.

Tending Tobacco

Of course, certain aspects of slavery did not change between the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. A slave's life was still filled with the backbreaking labor tobacco demanded. Seeds had to be hand-planted in specially prepared beds as soon as the ground warmed up in the early spring. And as the young plants grew, they needed to be carefully and individually tended—covered with straw to protect them from the frost in the evening, and uncovered at dawn in order to receive the morning sun. In March, the slaves began the long and delicate process of transplanting the seedlings to the fields that had been hand-raked into thousands of small hills. Using a sharp stick, an individual slave transplanted as many as 1000 small tobacco plants a day. And as the plants grew, they had to be inspected regularly for the worms that could destroy a crop. In late summer, the harvest would begin. For the next two months, with temperatures and humidity hovering around 90, the slaves would hand-cut the tobacco and carry it to a curing shed to be dried and then packed in hogsheads for shipment.

Tending the tobacco, especially in the late summer months, was exhausting—but it was not the slave's only job. For every five acres planted in tobacco, plantation owners estimated that they needed another 45 acres to provide timber for firewood and casks, pasture for livestock, cultivated land for corn, and fresh acreage to replace the land currently in tobacco production. And, of course, it was the slaves who provided the labor needed to work all this land and accomplish all these tasks.

A System Rooted in Violence

In yet one other way slavery changed little between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—it still rested on violence. Slave owners in 1675 and 1775 both depended upon ruthless coercion to maintain control over their work force. But as the eighteenth century progressed, the multiple consequences of slavery's dependence on violence grew more apparent—the broader social and cultural consequences of an economic system that relied on the constant threat and periodic demonstration of violence became more obvious.

Thomas Jefferson recognized the insidious reach of slavery in condemning its "unhappy influence" on white southerners. Dependent on violence, slavery stirred whites' "most boisterous passions" and bred "the most unremitting despotism." Lessons in violence, moreover, were quickly absorbed by young whites. Children learned to imitate their fathers' ugly behavior, giving vent to their own "worst passions" in daily demonstrations of "tyranny.21

Jefferson insights were acute—and revealing. His own long sexual relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, reminds us that force was applied in multiple ways. Nor was he alone in his sexual exploitation. William Byrd II, wealthy planter, author, and member of the Royal London Society, recorded in his diaries his sexual conquests among his slaves well into his sixties. But these expressions of slaveowner violence extended beyond rape. The white South's reliance on violence engendered an entire culture in which violence was cultivated and celebrated. From boxing and wrestling to extreme horse racing and cockfighting, southern pastimes turned violence into spectacle—and celebrated those who mastered its use. And more subtly, southerners channeled their society's dependence on violence into a romantic celebration of martial virtues. Southern gentlemen added an aggressive exclamation point to their social status by acquiring a military title through service in the local militia. One foreign visitor gently mocked the southerners' obsession with military titles; there were so many "colonels, majors, and captains . . . the whole country seems at first to you a retreat of heroes."22 Even the sexual practices of southerners took on a martial quality—the colonels, majors, and captains of the south carried their campaigns into the bedroom, where to "give a flourish," "salute," "mount the guard," or serve as a "volunteer in the Wars of Venus," became slang for sexual conquest.23

The Limitations of Violence

Yet for all the South's use and celebration of violence, it still failed to ensure an efficient and compliant work force. Even on amoral, practical terms, it proved the worst of tools—too dependent on the skills and will of its users and the cooperative submission of its recipients. Some slaveholders pushed easily beyond the bounds of all humanitarian considerations in disciplining their slaves. William Byrd II used chains and whips, branding and dismemberment to discipline his slaves; the most troublesome were fitted with a bit, much like a horse. But others struggled to find the methods and the strength of will to enforce their demands. And slaves refused to passively acquiesce in the multiple forms and threats of violence—instead they found endless methods of testing and resisting, endless ways of demonstrating that force is a poor tool in managing any group of people.

By the end of the colonial period, many of Virginia's slave owners were desperately seeking an alternative to the tobacco and slave culture on which they depended. Some thought that shifting from tobacco to wheat would help. Farming wheat was less labor intensive; it would allow them to sell off many of the slaves they found so difficult to control, and it would reduce their dependence on the institution which, they claimed, tortured their souls.

Others thought that the solution lay in reorganization. By the end of the colonial period, more and more Virginia planters were switching from the gang to the task system. Under the older gang system, slaves worked under the direct command of the owner or overseer. Their day was regulated by the sun—that is, they worked until the owner or overseer allowed them to stop. But under the task system, slaves were assigned specific duties or chores—and when they completed those chores their work was done and their time was their own. Of course, owners found ways to fill much of that time—as part of this system slaves were made responsible for producing a portion of their own food. Consequently, when their assigned duties were completed, they tended their gardens and livestock.

Some planters swore by this system. Their slaves, they claimed, worked far more efficiently, and their own managerial chores were simplified. But others feared that this system threatened to undermine the authority and the strict discipline upon which the entire institution of slavery depended. Regulating their own time and working their own gardens, slaves might creep up that spectrum of unfreedom toward a sense of independence and autonomy that could not be controlled.

Slavery was still a deeply entrenched institution in Virginia by the end of the colonial period; it was not about to break down under its own weight. Nor was the southerner's sense of burden or regret strong enough to lead him toward support of anything rash like emancipation. But things were not right and many Virginians knew it. And so they did the understandable—they passed on the blame. They blamed Virginia's founders; they blamed tobacco, Thomas Jefferson blamed the King of England. But they should have blamed themselves—or perhaps their fathers. For the slavery that they knew was of their making; their burden was self-imposed.

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