The History of America: Slavery Economics
In the last post, we discussed the creation of New York and Pennsylvania. If you’d like to read this series in chronological order, you can check out the History of America archives. Today we discuss slavery economics and the concept of “freedom” in Early America.
There is no worse mistake that anyone can make in any European history class then to believe that, or at least assume, that the “average” European classes were the people racing over to America; landing serenely on the shores and proceeding to do normal, everyday European tasks in their new European lifestyles. In fact, if you remember, the first Europeans interested in coming over to America were crackpots, looking for gold or the northwest passage. Well, those dreams became like myths to Europeans very quickly, and the people turned their attention to freedom.
But, here’s when the first major question pops up. What is freedom? The freedom to do what, exactly? As we discussed in past posts, America was in the middle of this smoke cloud at the time. There was this absence of restraint in North America, as nobody in Europe at the time cared enough or was close enough to want to watch the citizens and make sure they stay in their place.
Three kinds of people moved to America. For starters, you have people like William Clairborne (1587- 1677), who set up his own trading island in the Chesapeake Bay in 1631. He set up a makeshift navy to protect his little island from the Lord Baltimore’s claim of Maryland. Then, you had people like the radical religious people of New England. And finally, you have the idealists. The near anarchists and religious “nutcases” such as Penn and Winthrop, whom we’ve discussed before.
So, if one wants to claim that normal civilians of Europe moved to America, it’s easy to refute. Englishmen of higher class and standard didn’t wish to move to the New World. The unskilled people, the criminals and the religious people who didn’t wish to be persecuted, moved to America in pursuit of this freedom. Even the Puritan colonies, the ones that were formed purely due to religion, were full of these rascals and criminals.
These people of the New World needed some sort of law, and eventually created legislatures. A government without a crown! They didn’t understand even the slightest of English governmental ideas, but somehow, they were there. They created laws, and passed around three bills a year. These unskilled men created small councils, miniature versions of parliament to raise militias and pass American laws. Freedom starts to become a staple of American life.
As the 1700s begin, the colonies began to stabilize themselves. Mortality rates dropped, and trading became fully established between themselves. Towns and cities spring up across the map, creating their own laws and leaving their own mark. This is about the time Americans turned to recreate the societies they left behind in Europe so long before. Ironically, it wasn’t the radical ways of New England, or the political experiments of Virginia, Carolina or Georgia that won this game. They wanted to recreate the English way of ‘civilized life’ in America. This is much like what will happen in the Wild West in a little over a hundred years.
Instead of having new ways of government, they began to divide into counties like England. The Church of England became to official Church of Virginia, much like in England. The people dressed just like the English, and the people imported English goods and books. The Americans developed English trade, and even went as far to recreate the English way of class structure. They would soon look more like England than ever before!
None of this would have been possible, however, without cheap labor. In England, wealth was determined based on how much land someone had. This is because England was small, and land was expensive. It was said that 2.6 million people living in England were increasing the wealth of the English empire by owning land or working on land. However, another 2.8 million were decreasing the wealth of the kingdom by doing, basically, nothing. These people were unskilled, and England loved seeing them move to America.
In America, after the Indians were dealt with, land was of abundance! And at a fraction of the cost in any European market! However, there was a catch. Labor was expensive. Join stock companies, or proprietors such as John Winthrop, would buy convicts from England. These convicts could serve their sentences as laborers on American soil instead of in a jail cell. But, here is the next problem people dealt with: a convict’s sentence could and would eventually end. Sure, a farmer could try to hire a freshly released convict, but it would take a lot of money to persuade them when just beyond the horizon they could have unlimited land of their own and set up on their own!
By the 1700s, the Crown started to notice that these religious weirdos and beggars had become working settlers! Imagine that. These people, crackpots and convicts of the sort, were suddenly of colonial importance. People who ran their systems even more productively than the home isle of Great Britain! The Brits were faced with a problem: they were being out produced by their own child nation. In 1721, the English Crown developed unbalanced trading rights, and the shipments of convicts stopped. It became impossible to get English convicts to be laborers in America, as the crown refused to deal with this trade anymore. No ruler in his right mind would send workers to a place that could put them out of their own business…we’ll probably discuss American and Chinese working conditions in another future post.
The solution to the shortage of convicts? Forced labor.
Indentured servants, once freed after their five or seven year term, could do whatever the hell they really wanted to. And most of them chose to become their own bosses, and hire other indentured servants. This created a major demand for labor. However, in Virginia during the 1630s, death rates were so high that these servants died before the end of their term, and were unable to finish their terms and become employers of other servants. So, technically, for quite some time this supply and demand wasn’t an issue. Now, death rates were low.
Terms were lengthened. Now, instead of five or seven years, indentured servants had to endure ten or fourteen! If they tried to escape, the courts would double the terms of forced labor. And nobody could stop it. Eventually, only land owners could vote to keep indentured servants out of future political power. In 1666, Governor William Berkeley, someone we’ve talked about before, set up forts around the colonies. These forts would keep back Indians, but it would deprive future laborers of land. The result was terrible. Enraged former servants who worked hard to get their freedom couldn’t go out and get their own land, and they began to start wars with Indian tribes. Eventually the indentured servants would take over Jamestown.
The lesson learned by land owners was simple. Indentured servants would eventually become rebels. But, how could they stop it? Indentured servants would become slaves.
Now, these servants had no taste of freedom for them to look and rebel for.
In Europe, Slavery had died out during the Middle Ages. But, it was rediscovered by Spaniards and Portuguese soldiers during the late 1400s. They used slaves for trading with Africa. Southerncolonies began looking in favor of the slaves, as slaves had no rights to resist low work pay — if work pay at all, and could not risist the wills of their masters like indentured servants could. According to research, African slavery became the preferred form of slavery due to color. Slavery went from work based to race based.
And this denied freedom! What America was “built upon!”
Around 40% of the slaves taken from Africa were sent to Portugal’s Brazil. 50% were sent to the Caribbeans and Latin America. 10% during this time was sent to America. North America’s African immigration would soon outnumber European immigration.
Colonies that refused to have connections with slavery, such as Connecticut, would become the economic backwaters of America. America had based their English society off of the backs of laborers and slaves, something some people try to forget in today’s era. In 1772, William Murray (1705 – 1793) ruled that a Jamaican slave would be free because he set foot on English soil — where slavery did not exist.
What comes from slavery? Cheap economics, horrific morals, and horrible wounds.