Saturday, July 6, 2019

Slavery and the Four Liberties in Early America

As a student of history, I cannot help but wonder how early Americans could reconcile liberty with the institution of slavery. Obviously, that round peg doesn’t fit in a square hole. Many of our founders - not to mention, framers of our Constitution - owned slaves. These same people frequently railed against a distant parliament and king who denied them their rights as Englishmen, relegating them to a state of enslavement. Our revolution is based upon this very premise. So what gives?

Well, first, we must understand the first waves of British migration to the new world and their definition of liberty. Each had their own milieu that was as distinctive as the section of England from whence they came. This prejudices - religious and cultural - cultivated themselves in the section of America each wave colonized. These seeds germinated, nearly a century later, into the bloodiest war in our history.

Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer is probably the best book I’ve read on the various definitions of liberty and the cultures that embraced them. Here is an excerpt:

Exodus: The Four Great Migration, 1629-1750

After 1629 the major folk movements began to occur, in the series of waves that are the subject of this book. As we have seen, the first wave (1629-40) was an exodus of English Puritanswho came mainly from the eastern counties and planted in Massachusetts a very special culture with unique patterns of speech and architecture, distinctive ideas about marriage and the family nucleated settlements, congregational churches, town meetings, and a tradition of ordered liberty.

The second wave brought to Virginia a different set o English folkways, mainly from a broad belt of territory that extended from Kent and Devon north to Northhamptonshire and Warwickshire. This culture was characterized by scattered settlements, extreme hierarchies of rank, strong oligarchies, Anglican churches, a highly developed sense of honor and an idea of hegemonic liberty.

The third wave (ca. 1675-1715) was the Friends’ migration, which carried yet another culture from England's North Midlands to the Delaware Valley. It was founded on a Christian idea of spiritual equality, a work ethic of unusual intensity, a suspicion of social hierarchy, and an austerity which Max Weber called “world asceticism.” It also preserved many elements of North Midland speech, architecture, dress and food ways. Most important, it deliberately created a pluralistic system if reciprocal liberty in the Delaware Valley.

The fourth great migration (1717-75) came to the backcountry from the borderlands of North Britain- an area which included Scottish lowlands, the north of Ireland and England’s six northern counties. These emigrants were of different ethnic stocks, but shared a common border culture which was unique in its speech, architecture, family ways and child-bearing customs. Its material culture was marked by extreme inequalities of condition, and its public life was dominated by a distinctive ideal of natural liberty.

So, Mr. Fischer has distinguished four forms of liberty: ordered, hegemonic, reciprocal and natural. Two of these would come into serious conflict in the mid-1800’s. The same factions that were responsible for the English Civil War later became antagonists in the American Civil War: the roundheads and cavaliers. We have ordered liberty at war with hegemonic liberty.

For the purposes of understanding how slavery could coexist with liberty, one must look at the hegemonic version. Here is another excerpt from Albion’s Seed:

It never occured to most Virginia gentlemen that liberty belonged to everyone. It was thought to be the special birthright of free-born Englishmen - a property which set this “happy breed” apart from other mortals, and gave them a right to rule less fortunate people in the world. Even within their own society, hegemonic liberty was a hierarchical idea. One’s status in Virginia was defined by the liberties that one possessed. Men of high estate were thought to have more liberties than others of lesser rank. Servants possessed few liberties, and slaves none at all. This libertarian idea had nothing to do with equality. Many years later, John Randolph of Roanoke summarized his ancestral creed in a sentence: “I am an aristocrat,” he declared, “I love liberty; I hate equality.”

So now we know how slavery can exist in time when men preached and valued liberty against a distant parliament and king without feeling of hypocracy or guilt. We should also understand that slavery in the Americas was a British institution. Pennsylvania tried to outlaw the importation and practice of slavery but was rebuked by the Crown. Here is another excerpt from Albion’s Seed:

The Pennsylvania legislature took action in 1712, passing a prohibitive duty on the importation of slaves. This measure was disallowed by the English Crown, which had a heavy stake in the slave trade. In 1730 the Philadelphia yearly meeting cautioned its members, but still a few Friends continued to buy slaves. Other Quaker antislavery petitions and papers followed in increasing number. A close student of this material finds that Quaker “anti-slavery reformers never contended that slavery was economically unsound.” They insisted that is was morally corrupt, and at war with the deepest values of Christianity. The argument came down to the reciprocal principle of the golden rule. Quakers argued that if they did not wish to be slaves themselves, they had no right to enslave others.

Liberals love to hold slavery as an albatross around America’s neck. Maybe they wouldn’t hate our country if they picked up a book and tried to understand our past; it’s not that difficult.


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