The Origins of Slavery in Virginia in the Seventeenth Century


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During the thread of comments on Behind the Black in response to the recent story about how modern college students ignorantly think that slavery was invented in America, the subject of the origins of slavery in America came up.

This subject happened to be the entire focus of the thesis for my master of arts degree at New York University in 1995. The research I did produced a 338 page thesis, far larger than what professors usually see, and containing a gigantic amount of original research about the specific individuals who ran the Virginia colony during its first seventy years. The abstract sums up my conclusions somewhat succinctly:

Throughout Virginia’s first hundred years, moral issues and the establishment of community always took a subordinate place to the acquisition of wealth and profit. Unlike the religious colonies in New England, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, Virginia had been founded for purely financial reasons. In the pursuit of that financial gain, the leadership of the colony, formed from British Royalist refugees from the English Civil War as well as an uneducated Virginia-bred elite, took advantage of their position of power to create a system of institutionalized racism.

British political ideas, specifically the Royalist positions from the English Civil War, directly influenced the institutionalization of this race-based slave system. These ideas included a strong belief in birthright and caste combined with deference to leaders and an expectation that all social customs, including religious belief, should be dictated by the aristocracy wielding power. According to Royalist doctrine, the common folk of society should have no say in how society should be ruled.

These ideas became corrupted into outright racism by the unnatural and incomplete nature of Virginian society. Family life was generally disrupted by disease, with at least one in nine immigrants dying within a year of arrival. This disruption was magnified by the colony’s unbalanced sex ratio due to immigrant patterns that had three men arriving for every woman. And because the colony’s economy was so completely centered on the growth of a single money crop (tobacco), settlement patterns were widely dispersed. Virginia’s settlers lived isolated on scattered large farms, lacking towns or villages of any kind.

Furthermore, Royalist ideas of rule from above and birthright became distorted because Virginia lacked religious institutions as well as schools for providing moral instruction to the colony’s children. The focus on profit meant that the establishment of functioning churches or schools never took priority within the colony. And when dissenting religious practitioners attempted to preach within the colony, Virginia’s leadership outlawed such dissent under the Royalist doctrine of church government and rule from above.

The colony’s leaders, more and more of whom had been raised in this unhealthy and incomplete society, increasingly perverted Royalist doctrines for their own personal benefit. By the 1660s, these leaders had no reluctance about passing laws to enslave the few blacks in the colony, especially if such laws directly increased their wealth, power, and status.

Essentially, Virginia’s isolated culture of broken homes and poor education, based initially on Royalist concepts of caste and rule-from-above, were slowly corrupted as the colony’s population evolved through several generations from its founding in 1608 to the 1670s. This, combined with the corruption of the practice of indentured servitude (which in England was generally used as a tool to educate the young but in Virginia became a tool by which wealthy landowners could get seven years of free labor from poor immigrants) resulted in an acceptance by the culture of the idea that some humans had the right to own other humans. From this, it was an easy step to enslaving blacks, so that by the Revolutionary War, half the population of Virginia were black slaves.

Meanwhile, the northern colonies, mostly founded by the Pilgrims, Puritans, and Quakers, followed a very different path, focused on family, education, religion, and a rule-from-below approach to government. This different path remained much more closely connected to its British roots, which abhorred slavery. Thus, though some tried to introduce slavery into the northern colonies, the practice never took hold, and by the 1700s had just about completely disappeared. In fact, slavery was not only rejected in the north, it was here, in the Quaker communities in Pennsylvania, that the abolitionist movement was first born, an idea that was entirely new to human history.

In digging out my thesis to upload this post, I rediscovered it, and have decided that it needs to be published. Right now it is only gathering dust in the thesis archives of New York University, where no one can read it. I am going to put it together as an ebook, and have it out for purchase, hopefully by the end of the year.

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16 comments

  • Joe

    Looking forward to the ebook, what might someone call a society like Virginia in those early years, what one of rule of law was there? This is totally opposite of the Declaration of Independance, thankfully that declaration was not influenced by Virginian society.

  • Joe wrote, “This is totally opposite of the Declaration of Independence, thankfully that declaration was not influenced by Virginian society.”

    Ah but it was, Joe, it was. Remember, the Declaration was written by Thomas Jefferson, a plantation owner raised under that culture, which he rejected wholly from an intellectual perspective but had trouble rejecting in reality. His intellectual rejection though ended up permeating the Declaration, many parts of which were cut because of southern objections.

    Moreover, the influence of the south and that slave culture resulted in a nation divided unto itself, a division that required a civil war in the 1860s to end.

  • Joe

    Thank you Robert, I defer to your knowledge and insight, I am not well enough versed in our history, but still find it fascinating.

  • diane wilson

    My memory on this is fairly dusty, but I seem to recall that there was a well-established slave trade in the Caribbean even before the establishment of the Virginia colony, and that this slave trade was certainly not exclusively British. It’s sticking in my head that one of these slave traders brought the first slaves to North American soil, looking for a new market.

    Not to mention that slavery as a human institution existed for thousands of years.

  • Diane: The slave trade you are thinking of was from the Spanish and Portuguese, who would stop in Jamestown for supplies and trade slaves for those supplies. The British did not begin trading slaves until the last third of the 1600s.

  • ken anthony

    Robert, your book needs to be published simply because your honest voice is in competition with those not so honest. We are all ignorant and many would encourage that ignorance even with intent (so evil.)

    Chaffetz sent a letter to DOJ saying they should not destroy evidence. I’m thinking, is this guy really such a stupid boy scout? Treating the untrustworthy as trustworthy means the good guys lose. I’m hoping some good guys make copies and protect the data.

    You can’t spread the truth if you don’t first protect it.

  • LocalFluff

    ” the Declaration, many parts of which were cut because of southern objections”

    Interesting. Are there drafts remaining of parts of the constitution which were suggested but not implemented? Would be an interesting what-if game.

    The roots of the abolitionist movement in Pennsylvania, is that specifically for the US, or was it even the root for the global abolition? The US was later than the colonial powers (UK and France) to abolish slavery. And it was abolished in Russia (another kind of slavery) in the 1860s too. I wonder if that was inspired by the civil war, or if ethnic slavery was seen as something completely different than the Russian serf system.

    One of the causes of the differences between north and south in America might be that migrants chose to settle in areas with similar climate as they were used to at home. Where they knew how to cultivate nature, and bringing their religion and social culture with them. Northern Europeans preferred the north and central Europeans preferred the south (and South Europeans Latin America). At least early on before industrialization and with big cities as an exception.

    The US political system is fantastic with its division of powers. I think this might explain the prevalence of conspiracy theories in the US. One really has to conspire against the constitution in order to get absolute power in the US. In Europe politicians still have absolute power by default so they don’t need any conspiracies.

  • diane wilson

    Russian serfs were tied to the land, and the abolition of slavery there (not called by that name) was about land reform. It happened in 1861, and was completely unrelated to the US civil war. There was no ethnic component to slavery in Russia.

    US abolition was strictly about US slavery. I’m not familiar with the Pennsylvania origins, but one of the early abolitionists was Alexander Hamilton, who grew up as an abandoned child in the British West Indies, working in the slave trade there. His job was to evaluate the slaves physically before they were put up for sale. His hatred of slavery was deep and very personal.

    Robert, thanks for the additional details on the origin of slavery in Virginia. The point, for both of us, is that slavery was brought to the United States as part of pre-existing slave trading.

  • Tony

    On the north side of the Potomac River, in Maryland, Catholics established ‘their’ colony, Maryland. Jesuits were key players and participated in the plantation economy in southern Maryland. They had slaves aplenty, in fact, in 1865 the most valuable asset of the Archdiocese of Baltimore was slaves. They were no friends of emancipation. I find it interesting that Spanish and Portuguese traders established and capitalized on slaves – all Catholic countries. The justification was it is better for a person to be a slave in a Catholic place as they would be converted to the faith and have eternal life than to leave them in a place without the opportunity for salvation, like Africa. They wanted to save souls and the horrors of slavery were just physical, worldly concerns and had little weight in the long run of eternal salvation. It was also very profitable. The religious influence of other faiths in the North led to freedom for all, the Catholics were not among them. Did you research touch on Catholic behavior in Virginia?

  • Tony: You are essentially correct about the influence of the Catholic religion in Maryland. It generally did little to discourage slavery.

  • commodude

    Robert, your comments about slavery in the North bring to mind a family story from the town most of my ancestors lived in.

    A new preacher moved into the community, and with him came his slave (He was an odd duck, a slaveholding preacher from a slave state coming into a small farming community in Massachusetts.)

    The town initially welcomed the preacher, as they thought his slave was actually his servant. Once they found out that his servant was, in fact, his slave, they emancipated the slave, and advised the preacher to go elsewhere.

    Slavery was far from universally accepted in the colonies, despite modern revisionism.

  • Tom Billings

    Local suggested:

    “One of the causes of the differences between north and south in America might be that migrants chose to settle in areas with similar climate as they were used to at home. Where they knew how to cultivate nature, and bringing their religion and social culture with them. Northern Europeans preferred the north and central Europeans preferred the south (and South Europeans Latin America). At least early on before industrialization and with big cities as an exception.”

    It was much more direct than this. From day one the Spanish colonies were run as imperial viceroyalties. Given the problems he already had in Spain with peasant revolts, the King did not want large numbers of settlers running around loose, and the restrictions placed on them were such that anyone who was not already a hidalgo was less interested in settlement. That meant that the “peninsulares” were a distinct and elite minority in a mestizo population, in spite of what education the church could pass along. Only *after*independence* did other countries begin to contribute settlers in any large numbers.

    As long as the imperium lasted, this contributed to the need for slaves, since the Native American Indian populations were devastated by the diseases the Spanish brought with them. In addition, slaves were already a “population under control”, who could have no fantasies about the King favoring them over the Viceroy. In spite of greater resistance of African slaves to African diseases such as Yellow Fever, the death rates in the Caribbean were *very* high for both slaves and slave masters. Thus, the majority of slaves headed to the new world were replacements for those who’d already died in the islands’ sugar plantations.

    A similar South to North pattern developed inside the US, where the farther South a slave plantation was, the higher its usual death rate was, and the greater the severity with which slaves were treated. On the Gulf Coast death rates were nearly as high as some of the island plantations. By the time you got to the “Border States” right at the Mason-Dixon Line, the slave population was much healthier, and indeed increased over the decades. The knowledge of this was widespread, and it led to the mere prospect of being “sold South” as a threat hanging over a slave’s behavior. Unfortunately, once slave importation was banned in 1807, as prescribed in the Constitution, this meant that a major portion of a Virginia Plantation owner’s income, on lands depleted of the nutrients needed for growing a lush tobacco crop was often generating and selling as many young slaves (all children of a slave mother were also slaves) as was possible. The abuses that generated are all too obvious.

  • Tom Billings

    Diane noted correctly:

    “Russian serfs were tied to the land, and the abolition of slavery there (not called by that name) was about land reform. It happened in 1861, and was completely unrelated to the US civil war. There was no ethnic component to slavery in Russia.”

    However, slavery was, in a way, the inception of the serf system in Russia. All the way into the 17th century the Muslim lands to the South of Muscovy staged numerous and profitable slave raids into Christian Russia. From Kazan to Azov there were slave markets selling Russians. This was no small part of what shaped Russian society.

    There were abbatis built by Muscovy, from West to East, to slow the raiders South to North raids, and yet only a strong local Boyar could give substantial protection to the farmers. This protection, and the need to make sure the farmers were contributing wealth needed for the defenses, was what eventually bound them to the land, or they would run away from any border region, weakening it still further against the raiders from the South.

    Thus, the defenses against slave raids eventually led to the close approach to slavery that was serfdom in Russia. By the 19th century, the lands that had raided for slaves were conquered by Russia itself. That was when the last institutional incentives beyond the desires of the Russian Nobility ended.

  • Patrick Ritchie

    Look forward to the book being published, will certainly purchase a copy.

  • wayne & lindsey on the road in PDX

    Mr Z,
    Excellent stuff. Look forward to the ebook version of your Thesis!

    >I’m way more fuzzy on early colonial-American history than I would like to be, and recently started (slowly) working my way through this:

    “Conceived in Liberty”
    by Professor Murray Rothbard
    -He starts with Columbus & works up to the American Revolution.

    [ Table of Contents is at: http://wiki.mises.org/wiki/Conceived_in_Liberty — extensive list of topics, everything the America-haters at your College, never wanted you to know about your own history.]

    >The PDF & epub files are at:
    https://mises.org/library/conceived-liberty-2 (lengthy, 1,700+ pages)
    >Audio-book version at:
    https://mises.org/library/conceived-liberty-4
    (lengthy as well–260 mp3 files, in seven downloadable zip files.)

    from the book jacket:
    “Rothbard states that the history of the United States has been motivated by people’s pursuit of liberty, which he believes is constantly threatened by political power. Rothbard contrasts his views with what he claims are thinkers on the right who see the American Revolution as a “conservative” event, and other thinkers on the left who view it as some sort of “proto-socialist uprising.” Instead, Rothbard states that he views this period as a time of Libertarian Radicalism.”

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Tony: You are essentially correct about the influence of the Catholic religion in Maryland. It generally did little to discourage slavery.

    and: “In fact, slavery was not only rejected in the north, it was here, in the Quaker communities in Pennsylvania, that the abolitionist movement was first born, an idea that was entirely new to human history.

    So it seems that no religion did much to discourage slavery until the colonists in the northern colonies rejected the practice. Slavery dates back a long time. Off the top of my head, it goes back at least to the Egyptian Pharaohs, who kept the slaves that built their pyramids (up until Moses, anyway).

    Since the colonists in America are not credited with inventing the abolition movement, I should ask who is credited with it, but that seems to be answered in another thread:
    http://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/modern-college-students-think-america-invented-slavery/#comment-942906
    The movement to abolish slaves in the [British] empire started in 1772But the US was the leader in the abolitionist movement?

    You send them to school and buy their books, but what do they learn?

    Probably what the government-paid, anti-American, America-hating, hippy-generation teacher taught them.

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