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American Slavery Was Never Simple or Stable


By Ira Berlin

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498 pp., $29.95

Ira Berlin's "Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America" is a monumental, sweeping study of the evolution of America's "peculiar institution" from the earliest white settlement through the early Republic period. Berlin, one of the foremost historians of American slavery, has written an addition to the canon of essential works on the subject.

This is the culmination of two decades of research. In 1980, Berlin wrote a path-breaking article on the subject of early American slavery in The American Historical Review. His new book is the long-awaited and welcome expansion upon this article.

Berlin argues convincingly that despite an inherent power imbalance, slavery was a "negotiated relationship" between slave and owner. Even in the worst of circumstances, slaves always held a strong card: the threat of insurrection. Through this negotiation, slaves not only carved out an independent social sphere from sundown to sunup, they "created their own world under the owners' noses from sunup to sundown" as well.

Additionally, slavery itself continually changed, and hence the terms of the relationship frequently had to be renegotiated. Slavery was not a static institution, as many historians have portrayed it. Berlin's signal contribution is to drive home that slave life "differed from place to place and from time to time."

Berlin divides his study by both place and time. He identifies and examines four distinct slave societies in the first 200 years of North American slavery: the North; the Chesapeake Bay area; the coastal low country of South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Florida; and the lower Mississippi Valley of west Florida and Louisiana.

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He periodizes slave history and slaves themselves into the "charter generations" ("charter" refers to the crown charters of such early colonies as Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay), the "plantation generations," and the "Revolutionary generations."

Berlin also divides his study socioeconomically into "societies with slaves" and "slave societies." In the former, slaves, mainly cosmopolitan, multilingual "Atlantic Creoles," were marginal to the region's central production processes, and slavery was one form of subordinate labor among many. In slave societies, slavery stood at the very center of economic production, with an oppressive and patriarchal master-slave relationship serving as the model for all social relationships, including father and child and husband and wife.

Berlin points to the establishment of the plantation system as the main cause of the shift from the "charter generation" societies with slaves to slave societies, and with it the degradation of American black life. On the plantation, the planter was the self-styled "master" who owned everything and everyone.

Worse, the plantation took slavery's already established color-coding and "naturalized and rationalized the existing order through the use of racial ideologies." In plantation-dominated regions, African slavery was not just one form of subordination among many, but the very foundation of social order.

All the regions examined by Berlin evolved from societies with slaves into slave societies, with the change occurring as early as the turn of the 18th century in the Chesapeake and low country regions and as late as the 1790s in the lower Mississippi Valley.

Even the North, for unique economic reasons, developed slave society attributes before the institution finally died there, with a resultant permanent loss of status by all blacks in the region, slave and free alike.

The democratic revolutions of the late 18th century had a crucial but not uniform impact on the evolution of American slavery, toppling the institution in the North, strengthening it in the low country, and pulling it back and forth between vaunting freedom and bondage in the Chesapeake and the Mississippi Valley. For all the rhetoric and tumult, "the Age of Revolution witnessed the liberation of only a small fraction" of American slaves.

As Berlin points out, the dynamic evolution of slavery during the 1600s and 1700s did not cease in the institution's last 65 years. At the dawn of the 19th century, most blacks, slave or free, did not live in the black belt, grow cotton, or embrace Christianity. By 1850, the character of slave life would be reversed, and the African Church would be the cornerstone of black society and culture.

"Many Thousands Gone" makes clear that slavery at no point achieved the "stable maturity" that many historians have ascribed to the 19th century period. The antebellum archetype most vividly depicted in "Gone With the Wind" was but one brief moment in a 250-year struggle and negotiation between slave and owner.

* Neal M. Rosendorf is a PhD candidate in American history at Harvard University.

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