Slavery Comes to America

This week (July 30) in 1619, the House of Burgesses was established in Jamestown, Virginia, marking the first organized, representative government in America.  And then a few weeks later a ship carrying about 25 enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown.  As the historian Edward O’Donnell has pointed out, America’s greatest legacy, representative democracy, and her most shameful legacy, human bondage, were born in the same town less than a month apart.

Interestingly, there being no prior history of slavery in colonial America, in 1619 Jamestown’s leaders had neither customs nor laws dealing with the institution. They did, however, have a tradition of indentured servitude in which white Europeans seeking to immigrate to America, but lacking the funds for the journey, would agree to labor for a “master” for a term of service in return for — actually in excess of — the purchase price of their journey.  Once that term was completed the indentured servant was free to work for others for wages, to acquire property, to start a business and even employ others — including indentured servants.   So that was how most of the African slaves that subsequently began coming to Jamestown and the rest of Virginia’s Chesapeake region were also treated.  Yes, they were actually called “slaves” in official documents, but in practice they were indentured servants and some of them, having fulfilled their servitude obligations, subsequently gained their freedom, prospered economically and even took on other indentured servants, including black ones.

All that began changing in the 1660s, in part because of the rapid growth of blacks in the Chesapeake region.  This troubled many white citizens, who resented what they perceived to be a growing equality in the status of blacks and whites, and who felt threatened by the economic competition that blacks presented.

And then in 1675, Nathaniel Bacon, a planter angered by high taxes, Indian attacks on his property and ineffective government, initiated a rebellion consisting largely of indentured and formerly indentured servants.  Bacon’s army eventually clashed with the Jamestown government, resulting in bloodshed and destruction, and although Bacon’s Rebellion eventually died out, it soured Jamestown’s citizens, especially its planter class, on the whole idea of indentured servitude.

But large plantations still needed lots of labor, so laws were passed that made blacks permanent slaves, while also making their children slaves, and grandchildren, and so on. Hereditary chattel slavery had come to America.

And it would grow and expand as first tobacco and then cotton — both hugely labor intensive enterprises — became the underpinnings for the Virginian and southern economy.

And eventually it would result in a hugely bloody and destructive Civil War, in which no state shed more blood or suffered more destruction than the birthplace of slavery, Virginia.