Our Own Mad Clockwork

Why Did Slavery Flourish in Seventeenth Century Virginia?


Filed Under : Morality

Mr. Zimmerman, who was a film producer in New York when he wrote this article, is now a writer and historian, specializing in science and the history of space exploration. No further reproduction of this article is allowed without written permission of the author.

Multiculturalist educator Leonard Jeffries has charged that Jews were instrumental in the establishment of black slavery in America. Is this true? How did slavery establish itself in America?

This question is not easily answered. Most history books on slavery deal with later periods, such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the Civil Rights movement. If the question is ever asked, the answer is usually summarized as “economic forces made people buy slaves,” a Marxist formula I find wholly unsatisfactory. As John Adams himself said,

I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a Negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times when the practice was not disgraceful . . . and when it has cost me thousands of dollars for the labor and subsistence of free men, which I might have saved by the purchase of Negroes at times when they were very cheap.

Economic forces alone do not explain the birth of slavery in America.

My research not only helps to answer this question for myself, but also raises some terrifyingly profound questions about where America is going today. And since this question is about the germination and birth of an evil upon the world, its answer might help us spot the feeble beginnings of a parallel evil in our own time.

From Villainage to Slavery in Virginia

Serfdom, or villainage as it was called in England, had been abandoned for almost two centuries before the colonization of Virginia in 1607. And British law was very specific in protecting the rights of each individual, regardless of social status or economic class. Only bonded servitude remained as a form of coercive labor still practiced at the beginning of the seventeenth century. However, an individual who agreed contractually to work several years as a bonded servant almost always did so in exchange for room, board, and a very specific form of apprenticeship (that is, the learning of a trade). In addition, the law placed severe limits on the power a master held over his indentured servants.

Virginia began the long road to slavery when, less than twelve years after the establishment of the colony, those in charge changed the nature and meaning of bonded servitude as it had been practiced in England. Even though each new colonist was given fifty acres of land for immigrating into Virginia, the cost of transportation was too much for most citizens. In 1619 Sir Edwin Sandys, empowered to run the Virginia Company, instituted a program of paying each person’s transportation to the colony in exchange for four or seven years of indentured servitude in any labor the company chose (which was usually hard labor in the tobacco fields), with no requirement to provide any training. This idea was so appealing to many wealthy businessmen, in England as well as Virginia, that they began to use the method themselves to gain new workers. Not only did they get the years of servitude, they also negotiated the right to claim the fifty acres due every colonist.

In other words, a bonded servant in Virginia obtained nothing but relocation. For the period of his servitude he had no rights and no freedom and could be made to do whatever labor the master thought necessary. And because the social order of the colony was so new and unsettled, there were few controls on how a master could treat his servants. Very quickly, buying and selling human beings became a major form of trade in Virginia. As Thomas Best wrote from Virginia in 1623, “My master Atkins hath sold me for 150 pounds sterling like a damned slave.”

None of this prevented immigration, since the possibilities for wealth in Virginia were so enticing. If anything it encouraged it, because every English citizen dreamed of becoming a landed lord with his own servants. Virginia epitomized that dream.

Because of this policy, however, the majority of Virginia’s population for its first thirty years was young, white, and in cruel bondage. Everywhere you looked labor was forced and cost nothing. The social order taught its citizens that it was acceptable to buy and sell human beings for profit, and that if you needed something done, you could order someone to do it, he had to do it, and you didn’t have to pay him anything.

Blacks and Whites in Early Virginia

Despite this, the citizens of Virginia in these early years did not start buying black slaves in large numbers. Neither did they treat the blacks they did buy as slaves. British law stated that all Christians were equal citizens before the law. Black men and women, if Christian and baptized, could therefore not remain slaves. They would instead become indentured servants, and like any other British citizen, be able to earn their freedom after several years of service.

Research by numerous historians clearly indicates that a large percentage of the blacks brought to the Virginia colony in the years between 1619 and 1634 were treated as bonded servants, not as slaves, and eventually earned their freedom. Of the three hundred-plus blacks estimated to live in Virginia in 1650, more than fifty were free, with many owning land the same as any other white settler. Many of these free blacks had been imported into the colony in the 1620s and 1630s, had served their time as bonded servants, and had become free.

One family especially stands out: Anthony and Mary Johnson were Africans originally from Angola. Enslaved by rival tribes, sold to the Spanish, they came to Virginia in the 1620s. Because it appears that they had both converted to Christianity, they were made indentured servants by their owner and eventually earned their freedom. Anthony Johnson became the patriarch of a free black family that, for almost forty years, prospered on the Eastern Shore of Virginia—buying land, winning court cases, and even owning black slaves.

The Johnson family’s very well documented case illustrates remarkably how the early Virginian colonists were still willing to consider blacks no different from whites, and that slavery was not a fait accompli in Virginia. When the Johnson home burned down in 1653, the Northampton County court ordered that Anthony and Mary Johnson should be freed from the payment of taxes, recognizing that they” . . . have lived Inhabitants in Virginia [above thirty years], consideration being taken of their hard labor and known service performed.”

In addition, Johnson and his family had no problem becoming successful landowners. In 1651 he patented 250 acres on the Eastern Shore. Later, two of his sons were able to patent an additional 650 adjoining acres for themselves.

There are numerous other documented examples of successful free blacks and their acceptance by early Virginian society. Benjamin Doyle was granted a patent of 300 acres in 1656. Francis Payne was a successful black landowner on the Eastern Shore of Virginia who was also married to a white woman, Aymey. When Francis died, Aymey had no difficulty marrying a white man, having earned no stigma from her interracial marriage. Anthony Longo not only owned property but felt comfortable enough with his freedom that in 1654 he refused to come to the county court to serve as a witness, and he and his wife actually beat up the sheriff who tried to summon him. This defiance earned Longo thirty lashes, but such a punishment was not very unusual for any small landowner who defied the governmental powers of the colony.

The Gradual Rise of Black Slavery

Since almost all slaves were African and unaware of the British laws that would protect them, the choice of whether to make them bonded servants or slaves was usually left to the master. Up until the mid-1630s, most Virginians felt compelled to follow British law and make African slaves bonded servants if they were or became Christians. The social order said one must treat all Christians as equals, as citizens with rights.

This social pressure was always present in Britain and New England, where everyone lived in small, tightly knit communities with strong spiritual and religious leadership. Virginia, however, had its settlers scattered widely throughout Chesapeake Bay, and though they all took their religion very seriously, there were not enough clergymen willing or able to work in such a situation. Those who did could wield little influence on such a scattered population. Each settler and his family were on their own.

Without some objective set of moral rules, the choice of how to treat the African slaves in their midst became one of individual moral taste. At first, most obeyed the law and treated blacks who converted as equals. Unquestionably, however, the vast cultural differences between the Africans and the English, extenuated by the differences in their physical features, made obeying the law difficult for some. By the 1640s and 1650s, more and more Virginians began making the bigoted choice, treating individual blacks as members of an inferior group and therefore fit for slavery. And because the society was so loosely formed with no strong moral leadership, there was little that could be done to prevent this.

Strangely enough, Anthony Johnson provides us an excellent example of this. In 1653, a black man by the name of John Casor claimed that he had been purchased as a bonded servant and that his seven years of servitude had been completed, and that his master—Johnson, of all people—would not grant him his freedom.

Even though two white landowners of some power sided with Casor, Johnson was able to bring the case before the local county court and win, claiming that Casor had not been purchased as a bonded servant, but as a slave. The irony of this, of course, is that by winning the case, Johnson himself helped make the slavery of blacks more acceptable.

Obviously, Johnson was not alone in this. Some of the most powerful landowners, such as Edmund Scarburgh and George Menefie, were much more important. In the 1630s and 1640s these wealthy and very successful Virginia colonists suddenly realized that they could claim the same head-right of fifty acres by importing a slave to the colony as they could by importing a bonded servant. And since you didn’t have to coax slaves into immigrating, as you must free British citizens, obtaining their headrights was cheaper and more convenient. (As an example, Edwin Sandys had instituted an expensive and complicated public relations campaign, including lotteries and newspapers, in order to convince people to immigrate to Virginia.)

With the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch slave-traders working the waters all around Virginia, these great planters and community leaders of the Virginia colony found it easy to buy slaves in order to expand their land holdings. Furthermore, by taking advantage of the Africans’ foreign background and ignorance of British law, it was easy for some colonists to keep them as slaves. And because of the physical difference between blacks and whites, this could be quickly rationalized into a belief in their inferiority as human beings. The rest of the citizenry, whites and free blacks both, did no more than look disapprovingly upon such bigoted actions, though it was still in their power to stop it. Good men did nothing.

So, in 1635, Charles Harmar claimed the headrights of eight black slaves. In 1637, Henry Browne brought in another eight. In 1638, George Menefie purchased 23, and in 1639, another 15. In 1649 Ralph Wormeley imported the majority of 17 black slaves. And in 1655 Edmund Scarburgh brought 55 slaves from New Amsterdam, using his own ship.

In all these cases, the Virginians importing the slaves claimed fifty-acre headrights on each slave, thereby significantly increasing their own landholdings and wealth.

Even these actions did not make slavery a fully accepted institution in Virginia. According to historian Wesley Frank Craven, in the twenty years from 1630 to 1649, we know of only 245 headrights claimed for black immigrants. During this same time, more than eleven thousand British immigrant headrights were claimed, a ratio of almost 45 to 1. In addition, population figures compiled by historian Edmund S. Morgan show a ratio of 46 to 1 between the white and black population in 1653. Both these ratios correspond closely with the population numbers in the northern colonies for most of their history.

It seems obvious that most of the immigrants coming to Virginia before 1653 were British settlers, and that black slavery had not yet taken hold as the dominate form of labor.

Slavery and Political Expedience

Furthermore, it appears that few if any Englishmen were slave traders at this time. Slavery existed in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and the slave traders from these countries would appear every so often in Virginia, providing a convenient source of slaves for those interested in buying them. Until Edmund Scarburgh used his own ship in 1655 to import 55 slaves, no British merchant was clearly involved with the slave trade.

From 1653 to 1674, however, the black part of the total population grew from 2 percent to approximately 6 percent, with almost all the blacks now enslaved. Though the white population doubled in that time, the black slave population grew tenfold. What had happened in those twenty years to make the importation of black slaves more acceptable?

The reasons were political. Many of the same men who wanted to buy black slaves to build their fortunes (such as Edmund Scarburgh and Ralph Wormeley) were also members of the General Assembly, Virginia’s legislative body, and they used this position in government to shape the law to their advantage.

Until 1661, elections for the General Assembly were held somewhat regularly, and from 1649 to 1660, Cromwell and the Puritans in England strongly influenced how Virginia was ruled. After 1660, however, the King took power again in England, and from then until 1676 Governor William Berkeley called for no new elections. For sixteen years, Virginia was ruled by the same men, and the general population accepted this with nary a peep of protest.

In reviewing their legislative record, it becomes obvious that these unchallenged legislators clearly believed that they had the wisdom, knowledge, and ability to shape Virginian society as they saw fit. A small sampling of some of the laws passed by this Long Assembly, as it was called, is illuminating. They fixed the exact rates at which tavern owners could sell liquor; fined people for spreading false rumors; dictated the heights of fences around each planter’s farm; prohibited planting tobacco after July 10; ordered every planter to plant Mulberry trees; required tanneries to be built in each county; and directed every taxable person to plant two acres of corn.

And in 1667 they passed a law declaring that the “conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.” In other words, no longer did a slave owner have to fear losing his slaves if they converted to Christianity. If you were born a slave, you would die a slave, and no longer could you do anything to change that. By importing a slave to the colony, a slave owner would not only earn a fifty-acre headright, but also a guaranteed servant for life.

Other laws passed by this Assembly made the children of slave women automatically slaves themselves; forbade free blacks from purchasing Christian white servants; made all non-Christian slaves brought into the colony slaves for life; and absolved slave owners from any guilt should they kill their own slaves.

The terrible result of these laws was twofold: first, they tried to establish for blacks a fundamentally inferior status, and second, they sanctioned the government’s support of the idea that slavery should be encouraged and spread.

Hence, the importation of slaves increased significantly during this Assembly’s sixteen-year rule. It was also during this time that Anthony Johnson and his family moved to Maryland in the hope of maintaining their freedom.

Was slavery now a given? Had its presence been permanently cemented into Virginia society and into the future of the American society to come? No, not even now was the course of history set and unchangeable. Black slaves still comprised a very small minority in the total population, and the majority of people did not want or own slaves.

Bacon’s Rebellion

In 1676 the colonists of Virginia actually rose in revolt against the Long Assembly, in what is now called Bacon’s Rebellion. The causes of this revolt were complicated and numerous. Ostensibly it began as a panicky desire by the colonists to protect themselves against the Indian massacres taking place on the outskirts of the colony. Because Governor Berkeley forbade the colonists to raise an army to attack the Indians, the colonists rebelled.

Equally important, however, was the small free landowners’ resentment of the laws and taxes placed on them by the Long Assembly, and their desire to eliminate these laws and taxes. In addition, because slavery gave such a powerful advantage to the large and wealthy landowner over the small landholder who could not afford to buy slaves, a significant number of small land owners participated in the revolt in order to stop the spread of slavery.

The rebellion was also pressed by many black slaves who now realized that their chances for freedom were disappearing. Black slaves represented more than ten percent of the rebel militia, and of the last hundred rebels to surrender, approximately eighty were black.

Unfortunately, the failure of this rebellion led to the British royalty’s taking a stronger voice in running the colony. Fearing further slave revolts, and with the King eager to make money trading slaves, the Royal Governor strengthened the laws enforcing and sanctioning slavery. This in turn encouraged the growth of large plantations with many slaves. In the thirty years from the end of Bacon’s Rebellion to the recodification of Virginia’s slave laws in 1705 (with its explicit outlining of laws establishing slavery as the specific status of blacks), slaves were imported into Virginia in ever-increasing numbers. In 1699 there were approximately ten thousand black slaves in the colony, now comprising about 16 percent of the total population. By the time the American Revolution took place seventy-five years later, almost half the population of Virginia would be black slaves.

As historian James Curtis Ballagh notes, by 1705 “it was far easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a negro or mulatto servant thereafter imported into Virginia to escape being made a slave.” And in 1706, the grandson of Anthony and Mary Johnson died without an heir. With his death, the Johnson family disappeared from history, and the family farm, appropriately named “Angola,” reverted back to the state.

Unlike in Great Britain and the northern British colonies, only in Virginia in the seventeenth century did British colonists buy slaves in large numbers. Only in Virginia did slavery become the normal way of doing business. And though British and American individuals participated in the slave trade once it was established in later years, in neither New England nor Britain could they get anyone to buy slaves.

So what really allowed slavery to flourish in seventeenth-century Virginia? Fundamentally, slavery was caused by the unwillingness of too many Virginians to make the correct moral choice based on the truth. First they denied the truth that by enslaving blacks they were oppressing them. Then they rationalized this oppression with the lie that blacks were inferior to whites. Finally, they institutionalized this lie by passing laws to enforce it.

If any principle of Western civilization made it possible for our ancestors to create a healthy, prosperous society, it was the desire the passionate need—to discover the truth and from this to make the correct moral decision. From Plato to Shakespeare to Francis Bacon to Gallileo to Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln, this concept resonates throughout our history. Even the commissioners sent by King Charles II to find out why the Virginian colonists rebelled in 1676 felt obliged to learn the truth, though that truth destroyed Governor Berkeley, an ally and friend. Such unwavering devotion to the truth makes possible the building of an honest, just society.

Racial Ranking Redivivus

Three hundred years ago Virginians decided the truth didn’t matter. Sadly, it seems that in America today too many people have decided the same thing. Despite this and other clearly proven examples of how he has distorted historical facts to advocate his ideology, Jeffries remains head of the Black Studies department at City College in New York. And despite the reality that our federal government is badly managed and that its social programs have failed to achieve their goals, our elected officials today still believe that more government programs and spending will solve this country’s problems. And like Governor Berkeley and the Long Assembly, they’re going to force more government and spending on us all regardless of the facts or the consequences.

Worst of all is our present government’s desire, just like Berkeley and the Long Assembly, to rank and reward people not by their individual achievements but by their racial, sexual, and ethnic background, and to enforce these rankings by law. Haven’t we already trod this terrible path once too often?

I believe we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, but I also believe that to do so, we must always honor the truth above our ideology, even if the truth proves us wrong. Otherwise, we are no different from the lowest form of life, bound by instinct and doomed never to make ourselves better than we are condemned to the “mad clockwork” described by Walter Miller in his novel A Canticle for Liebowitz:

Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed to sand . . . burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again.

Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?


March 1994

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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