Title: Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America
Author: Ira Berlin
Categories: Slavery, Spatial History, Race, Atlantic World
Place: New England, Chesapeake, Upper South, Lower South (Louisiana and Florida)
Time Period: 1619-1800
Ira Berlin's synthesis of slavery during the colonial period answers his own call for a greater attention to the diversity of "slavery" in American history. He argues that historians have too long treated slavery as static, both spatially and temporally. Instead, Berlin charts slavery during the 17th and 18th centuries across multiple dimensions - spatially across four different geographic areas (New England, the Chesapeake, the Lower South/Carolinas, and the Mississippi Valley) and temporally across three generations (the charter generation, plantation generation, and revolutionary generation). He elaborates two basic types of society: a slave society and a society with slaves, and demonstrates how different areas could move back and forth between the two at different times. For Berlin, modes of production hold a central place in these transformations and emphasizes how the tobacco, rice and indigo, sugar, and cotton revolutions all marked a transition for various areas in the place of slavery in society. He also argues that race was not just a social construct, but an historical one - and one that increasingly became linked to slavery over the course of the colonial period.
Berlin's first CHARTER generation of the 17th century was marked by creole cosmopolitans, primarily coastal Africans that were fully immersed in the Atlantic world and used their status as cultural brokers and intermediaries to operate with a limited degree of autonomy in the slave system. Outside of the Mississippi Valley, Berlin's three other areas were largely societies with slaves during this period - although that was severely shortened in South Carolina, where the rice revolution of the 1670s-1690s transformed it into a slave society. In the Lower South (Louisiana), attempts to replicate the West Indies slave society system eventually collapsed with the Natchez rebellion.
In the PLANTATION generation of the late 17th and first half of the 18th century, conditions for slaves worsened. Creole cosmopolitans were replaced with more slaves form the interior of Africa, which combined with divisions between native-African-Americans and African imports to make for a fractured society. Planters consolidated their control over slaves with the passage of black codes along with a rising system of paternalism - with the harshest system being in South Carolina and the development of "paternalism-at-a-distance" with absentee planters establishing control over a majority black population by the 1740s. Finally, race became more and more entwined and hardened with slavery. The main exception was the Mississippi Valley, which maintained a society with slaves in which slaves operated with more autonomy. New England and the middle colonies took on many of the trappings of a slave society.
In the REVOLUTIONARY generation of the late 18th century, slaveholders managed to resist the potential for upheaval of the American and Haitian Revolution and in many cases retrenched their power. In the Upper and Lower South (Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana), black society was marked by a severe division between often urban free and plantation slaves (replacing earlier divisions of African vs. African-Americans), and the sugar and cotton revolution brought about severe transformation in the Mississippi Valley into a slave society. In the Chesapeake and Upper South, the two were much more intermingled, while in New England the Revolutionary generation witnessed gradual emancipation laws that slowly and unevenly freed slave populations by the first decades of the 19th century.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Slave Society vs. Society With Slaves
- Contingency - move towards slave societies were not uniform or one-way
- Changes in contests over production
- Diversity of time and space:
- (Time) Three generations: Charter Generation (17th century), Planter Generation (early-mid 18th century), Revolutionary Generation (late 18th century)
- (Space) Four Regions: New England, Chesapeake, Carolina Low Country, Lower Mississippi Valley
- Creole Cosmopolitanism
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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