Book Review: Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740

foul-means-formation-slave-society-in-virginia-1660-anthony-s-parent-paperback-cover-artAnthony S. Parent, Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003). Pp. 291.

            In Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740, Anthony Parent weaves a masterful account of the reasons behind the rise of slavery in Virginia between 1660 and 1740.  He counters popular claims of the institution of slavery developing in early Virginia due to the tobacco production and lack of cheap labor.  Instead, Parent argues that “during a brief period in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, a small but powerful planter class, acting in their short-term interest, gave American its racial dilemma.”[1]  He claims that this emerging elite planter class conspired together to maintain and grow their power through “their decision to enslave blacks” and “establish a coercive state.”[2]  As a historian of African America and Colonial America, Parent artfully responds to a collection of historians, most notably Winthrop Jordan in his work White Over Black, across time that have contended that slavery in Virginia was an “unthinking decision” creating a well defended and supported alternate viewpoint.[3]

Foul Means is outlined in three chronological and slightly overlapping sections: Origins, Conflicts, and Reactions.  In the Origins section, Parent creates a character profile of what he deems the elite planter class through a social science and economic perspectives.  This profile is developed through an examination of how these immigrants came to own such a large amount of land stealing and ‘buying’ it from the Native Americans, and an almost scheister group of newcomers that married into land or wealth with an eye for mercantilism.  His research and graphs provide a quantitative view of his argument, allowing for a deeper understanding and a pictorial demonstration of the abuses of the colonial administration and the headright system that allowed the officials to claim slaves to gain more land.

Though Parent’s economic argument surrounding the labor shortage of indentured servants in conjunction with the rise and fall of the price of tobacco is fascinating, claiming that African enslavement quickly replaced them as a cheaper source it is merely a different perspective on an old story.  The economic points Parent makes seem to wander around his main argument before coming back to center, detracting from his thesis.  Shrouded in his character profile of the elite planter class, Parent discusses the initial stages of racism in America. The white indentured servants were protesting against being made ‘slaves’ which suggests that they considered slavery to be morally wrong but only when applied to themselves.[4]  Thus, King Charles II “promoted the [African] slave trade” … “by protecting one labor group from exploitation”, the white English.[5]  William Fitzhugh, a member of this elite planter class, discussed his notions of breeding his slaves, creating a Virginia stock, “not unlike cattle,” that could sustain their supply to meet their demand to prevent the previous labor shortage because of issues with the trading companies.[6]  However, in the 1680s, the primary labor source became African slaves through various means of transport, including the black market.

The most powerful section, Conflicts, spawns from the racism laid out in Origins. The Slave Codes and laws began emerging as early as 1640, when very few Africans and free blacks lived in Virginia.[7]  These Codes intended to emphasize the racism, purposely digging a valley between the whites and blacks of society, putting into law that the blacks needed to be controlled and the potential consequences if they broke these laws.  Here, Parent could have demonstrated the elite planters’ knowledge of their treatment of these enslaved Africans as morally wrong, but instead he imprints the idea that the planters saw them as separate and intentionally wrote these laws to continue this separation.  It is possible that these planters used this view of separateness as an excuse for their inhumane acts.  The elite planters feared that the poorer whites would band together with the Africans, forming an alliance for freedom and insurgency.  Interracial uprisings confirmed their fears, leading to more desperate attempts to emphasize the class difference between the two groups, such as making the slaves wear the color blue.[8]  Parent details numerous revolts and attempted revolts and the quelling of their insurgency by the white elite class as a means for degradation and to prove to the rest of those planning such attempts that they would be, in effect, brought to justice.  Yet these class differences were not only made apparent between lower class whites and Africans but also between the elite planters, middling and lesser planters, who some eventually were able to procure slaves for themselves.  Arguments arose between the upper and lower planters and merchants over taxes imposed on the enslaved that the owners must pay.  This tax would regulate the slave trade and only make elite planters financially eligible to maintain enough slaves to work the fields, thus keeping the class structure in tact with no upward movement available.  However, the crown rejected the slave duty acts, much to the chagrin of the elites.

With the growing insurgency among the slaves, the poor, and other who they saw as their dependents, their loss of power with the crown in England, and their growing dependence on merchants for trade, the elite planter class devised an ideology of patriarchy to make themselves distinctive from the other classes while quelling the uprisings, as Parent explores in his final section, Reactions.  Thus, as the patriarchs, these elite planters saw themselves as the top of society who provided “order, the pastoral, provincialism, and providence.”[9]  As devote Anglicans, these planters founded their ideology on their faith and saw it as “divine providence” that they were the masters of the land and all the others were dutiful servants.[10]  Christianity itself became an issue among the enslaved, as they saw it as a ticket for freedom; however the English saw their conversion as a means “to reduce them to greater docility.”[11]  Parent discusses the corruption of the clergy and their unwillingness to usurp these patriarchal planters.  An entire book could be written on the use of Christianity in slave culture by both the slaves and the white owners so the information presented is minimal but impactful.

Overall, Parent’s work is an interesting perspective on slavery and class development in early Virginia.  He supports and proves his arguments both that an elite planter class emerged through coercion and illegal landing dealings via political standings and connections and also that this elite planter class conspired to switch labor sources from indentured servants to African slaves.  Parent’s research into statistics of the landholdings and headright patents as well as his use of journals and letters only strengthen this argument. His differing perspectives surrounding this ethnohistory are a welcome change from the standard cultural and social perspectives surrounding the investigation into slavery.  In spite of sporadic moments where Parent digresses slightly the organization of the book allows for an easy reading flow, from reviewing and understanding base information, such as the slave code, and then analyzing interaction and reaction to this information, such as the uprisings and conflicts.

However, the information that Parent presents is hardly new to the field.  The contribution Foul Means makes to the historiographic conversation is the viewpoint of the argument.  Even if other historians do not agree with his conclusions, Parent expands the conversation to include this elite planter class that cannot be denied based upon his research and presentation.


[1] Anthony S. Parent, Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), pp. 2.

[2] Parent, pp. 105.

[3] Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), pp. 44-98; Parent, pp. 2.

[4] Parent, pp. 56.

[5] Parent, pp. 60.

[6] Parent, pp. 72.

[7] Parent, pp. 109.

[8] Parent, 147.

[9] Parent, 200.

[10] Parent, 236, 201.

[11] Parent, 237-8.

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Posthumous Freedom

A petition of freedom from 20 slaves who were fighting in the Revolutionary War to the New Hampshire General Assembly was unearthed 30 years ago in the state archives of New Hampshire by Valerie Cunningham, a historian and preservationist from Portsmouth.  The argument and irony of the petition has become well known to historians of the era and up to the Civil War that the colonists were fighting so hard for their own freedom from Great Britian yet were unable to see the plight of their slaves who wanted their own.  Their petition was ignored as it was deemed not the right time to free them.  Later, only 6 slaves were granted their freedom.

Now, 233 years later, it appears that the 14 slaves who were never granted freedom may receive it from the New Hampshire government.  It is a symbolic decision, obviously.  State Senator Martha Fuller Clarke is sponsoring the Senate bill, which has already passed through the Public and Municipal Affairs Committee and is now headed for the full Senate vote.  Governor Maggie Hassan has already agreed to sign the bill upon approval by the full Legislature.

It calls attention to efforts of community organizations to protect and preserve the African burial grounds, culture, and contributions of the people.  The African Burying Ground Committee in Portsmouth has been working for the past ten years to build a memorial park in an African-American burial ground in downtown.  The funds are just not available, however, their hope is to break ground this summer with their design, including granite engravings with passages from the petition.

What do you think?  Is it too little, too late?  Or a needed gesture?

If you’d like to see more about the African Burying Ground Committee, the cause, and possibly make a donation, you can visit their website at http://www.africanburyinggroundnh.org/ .

You can read more about this petition here at the Boston Globe and see more about the memorial here at the City of Portsmouth.

Book Review: Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution

Unruly AmericansWoody Holton. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.

Woody Holton’s Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution should be a work of interest for scholars of the American Constitution and all that surrounds it, as well as students of early American history who have a solid bit of background already.  His argument appears to be twofold: that the delegates sent to Philadelphia to draft and revise the Constitution did so to create less of a democracy, taking direct power away from the people and thus forming a republic, but it was also because of the demonstration of power from the populace through rebellions against the states’ taxes and repayment demands.  Thus, as a result of these uprisings the Framers of the Constitution took a finite amount of power, especially financial power to extract tax from citizens, from the states and placed it in the central government.  Essentially, for about ten years, the newly formed United States had a true democracy with limited power in the central government until they discovered this democracy was a losing game financially and that “the American Revolution had gone too far” leading to “an excess of democracy” (5).

Holton takes an interesting look at the class issue through his economic argument surrounding the framing of the Constitution, bringing the common man into the Pennsylvania courtroom with the elite men.  He often stakes a case against the Framers, basically labeling them as members of the elite class with anti-democratic sentiments when they stepped into that courtroom to impact the future of the nation.  However, at the same time, Holton paints a painful picture between the creditors and debtors and the fate of the nation with the state governments’ failure to pressure people into paying their debts, both those to their creditors and those to the state.  Everyone was acting in their own self interest, including many of the Framers who were also credit holders to these farmers in rebellion. My impression is that the Framers and Holton were arguing that had they not drafted and proposed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the United States would have been headed for civil war with outcome unknown.  The sense of the populace rising against being supposedly outrageously taxed by their own state echoes some of the arguments against the Crown prior to the Revolution.

I think much of Holton’s argument surrounding the creditors and debtors still rings true today, as he notes briefly around the Civil War in his epilogue.  The rhetoric of the elite claiming that the farmers “were responsible for their own predicament” sounds much like claims on those discussing the classic stereotype of the “welfare mom” or seniors on Medicaid or Social Security who did not save enough money (53).  Also, the belief that many Americans hold regarding the men and women in government positions come from an elite class who form the laws to govern and hold the lower and middle classes back.  Likewise the claim that people were being overtaxed is still a war cry today in every election in every state, but especially the presidential election.


Book Review: Before the Revolution

Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). Pp. 502.

Image            Many volumes have been written attempting to concisely and properly synthesize years of early American research and publications into a single readable volume.  As a prominent Early Americanist with a sympathetic trend towards Native Americans, Daniel Richter joined the scholars that came before him with his newest publication, Before the Revolution.  Through his work Richter lays a path, peeling back the cultural layers of Progenitors, Conquistadores, Traders, Planters, Imperialists, and Atlanteans to demonstrate how each layer built upon each other, interacting together to create the history that is known and taught today.  He analyzes the relationships between Natives and Europeans, as well as Europeans amongst themselves across the time span of pre-contact to the Seven Years War, through agricultural, economic/trade, and religious interactions leading to positive or negative implications.  Each section flows in a chronological order, with minor overlap and revisiting of certain topics across chapters.

The Progenitors section lays the foundation for the book, giving a broad history of medieval Europe and North America through a little ice age and into a thawing.  This section argues that the power struggles in the medieval continents set up the meeting tone and tensions of the populations in the sixteenth century after a short ice age.  Much of this power came from the agricultural and land conquests.  Civilizations on both continents depended upon a type of feudal society, with the Natives paying homage and food supplies to a chief or spiritual leader and the Europeans under the power of a Lord and King.  Most impressive is the detailed dedication specifically to the Native Americans in a greater length than many high school and undergraduate textbooks typically afford.

After the “Little Ice Age,” the intense desire to explore and conquer permeated throughout the European continent.  The power built in the Progenitors age transitioned into the Conquistadores age.  Conquistadors had lofty dreams of ruling over grateful Natives worshipping their new Lords.  Richter dispels the myths of the conquistadors solely searching for spices or to prove that the world is round or flat.  Instead, these warriors from France, England and Spain sailed to find land to acquire, either by force or coercion, wealth to send back to their homeland, and people to convert to their religion. The race was on for the varying Protestant denominations from England and France and the Catholics from Spain to create posts and colonies trying to convert the Natives to boost their numbers and maintain a stronger foothold in the new continent.

Religious views aside, once posts or colonies had been established, the Natives and Europeans discovered the benefits they could reap from each other through trade despite their cultural differences concerning money and monetary value.  However, through this trade, greed rampaged throughout each civilization creating tension and warfare between the nations.  Native tribes created alliances in order to save themselves from other larger and stronger tribes who preyed on the weak who did not trade for weapons.  Many tribes lost members not through warfare over greed of land or commodities, but through disease spread via contact with the Europeans.  As much as 90-95% of the Native populations were wiped out from diseases alone.

As the Europeans firmly settled themselves in their new land, a new threat to the Natives survival as they knew it and to order in the “new world” emerged after the Pequot War: the white planter.  The Planters section highlights the beginning of a stratified society via land wealth, similar to the feudal societies on the European continent.  With the religious and political dissent in England, many frustrated or repressed people, such as the Puritan community, viewed the colonies as a place of freedom and a new beginning to implement their ideas of how to create a perfect society.  With so many different groups setting out to the colonies to start new lives, the turmoil simply followed them from one continent to another.

While the colonies struggled and then found their stride on the North American continent, the European homelands were facing political and religious upheaval.  In the 1660s, monarchs in England and then France took firm control of their countries, reigning in their feudal lords and subordinates, including the Planters in North America who had created their own elite status.  Likewise, life was not quiet in the colonies.  Nathaniel Bacon led “Bacon’s Rebellion” in a violent political demonstration against these elite and the Natives fought against their European conquistadors in four separate conflicts, including the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and King Philip’s War.  The Dutch, on the other hand, rose in their popularity with the Native American traders creating a more stiff competition between the colonies for the Native trade goods.  However, the Glorious Revolution in 1688 signaled the weakening of the imperialist hold on the colonies.

After the Glorious Revolution, the North American British colonies began to mirror the lifestyles and look of major English cities.  These people that Richter has deemed the Atlanteans mastered trade, shipping, and printing crossing the Atlantic Ocean.  Trade and shipping grew to include the increased shipment of slaves from Africa.  Indentured servants lost favor as an expensive resources, whereas the African slaves were treated as less than human.

For such a large undertaking, Before the Revolution has numerous positive points.  First, Richter does not shy away from analyzing the motivations and results of the greed from both the Native Americans and the invading Europeans in trade and conquest of land and people.  The in-depth analysis and  not just fact listing dispels many common myths currently taught in high school history classrooms, such as in the case of Columbus.  Such analysis also highlights some of the historical arguments regarding certain events and documents usually not questioned in a classroom, such as John Winthrop’s demands.  Further, the maps positioned directly with the correlating text are helpful for comprehension of complicated sailing routes and township locations especially for new students to the subject matter.

However, for all of the positives, the survey also lacks vital information.  The slave trade is mentioned in several chapters across the book and especially in the Atlantean section; however, more in depth analysis of the shift from indentured servants and captured slaves from the various wars would have provided for a deeper understanding of the economic shift African slavery brought the colonies.  Likewise, information on the Caribbean and La Florida is scarce, with small pieces mentioned when it directly correlates with an event on the mainland, such as short paragraphs on the West Indies, Cuba, and sugar plantations.  Instead, the focus of the second half of the book is mostly on the English, their history and settlements, with the exception of Pennsylvania, the only true colony open to any religious sect.  Although, in such a broad survey it is next to impossible to include all information that could be considered important.

Despite its shortcomings, Richter’s work sways the scholarly conversation into a slightly different direction, giving richer detail in less glamorous favor of the Europeans while demonstrating the continual interconnected history of the world with strong religious, economic, and agricultural themes.  Utilizing numerous secondary sources and extensive research, Richter’s survey will be appreciated by scholars, undergraduate and graduate students alike, as well as a general audience with an intense special interest in pre-revolutionary history.

For more information on the author, Daniel Richter, please click here.

To purchase Before the Revolution, please click here.