Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More than One Way to Skin a Moral


Occasionally, different attitudes lead to similar results. This type of convergent evolutionary history describes Virginia and Maryland well, sisters of the Chesapeake. For many years in their early history, however, they fought like brothers in the dirt. Two books approach the Chesapeake pair from different angles in order to understand the thinking that led to tobacco culture and its peculiar offspring of American slavery. What must be understood about this relationship is that slavery developed as a solution to the uniquely American problem of labor in agriculture. Depending on one’s point-of-view, Maryland either started ahead of or behind Virginia. Still, they both reached the same conclusion of slavery.

One of these books, Robert Cole’s World: Agriculture and Society in Early Maryland describes a Chesapeake farmer and his life, detailing well the everyday, normally mundane facts. This is an ethnographic approach, technical in analysis with fantastic, wonderfully complex detail. The other book tells the same story of these early twins from the perspective of flamboyant, English privateer businessmen who very often paid little attention to legality. In American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, an attempt is accurately and humorously made to explore the great American paradox: the marriage of freedom and slavery. Both Virginia and Maryland would develop a great dependence on the “peculiar institution” and both of these books tell their different stories remarkably well. Ironically, they meet in the end.

Robert Cole’s World endeavors to explain the misunderstood efforts of the Chesapeake tobacco farmers by a detailed examination of seventeenth-century farming methods. The idea was to compare these methods to other farmers of the period and judge them upon their own merits. It is unquestionable and certainly expected that these methods do not correspond to those of today; nor do they correspond with those of the Old World. George Washington commented that the American farmer focused not on how much could be produced from his land, which was plentiful and cheap. Rather, he was concerned with making as much as he could from the labor that he put into it, which was dear and in short supply.

The authors firmly establish that tobacco agriculture was important in Maryland, despite the efforts of the Lords Baltimore. They support this contention well with facts and figures showing that each farmer concerned himself about 85% of the time with, as King James put it in 1631, “that Stincking Weede of America” (Carr, Menard, and Walsh, 1991, 13). Nonsmokers will certainly agree with that sovereign's assessment. Still, Carr, Menard, and Walsh demonstrate well that Maryland followed Virginia’s lead in heavily producing this “weede.” Maryland’s common boundary with Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay, gave its farmers as much opportunity with English and Dutch traders of tobacco as their neighbor and by 1635, they soon found rising prices and profitability. Though the fluctuating price of tobacco was of continual concern to Maryland farmers, enormous growth was spurred on by its production.

The free adult male population was divided amongst four groups: the gentry, landowners (yeoman planters), tenants, and inmates. Gentry in Maryland did not exactly parallel the gentry of England. Maryland gentry comprised some of the more common positions found in the home country: burgesses, sheriffs, and justices of the peace. Some of those considered as gentry were merchants, also not reflective of England. Still, America had less illustrious occupations to choose from. Yeoman planters filled the majority of the lists, also unlike England where a great many of the populace worked the land with virtually no chance of upward mobility. America provided a different opportunity through its vast land resources not available in England. Tenant farmers fell lower on the scale, yet may have approached freemanship. Finally, there were the inmates. Inmates, beyond today’s punitive connotation, were arguably not far from that appellation as low-income contract laborers and had to pay dearly for every necessary in their life, for they were probably unmarried.

There was more to life than simply cultivating dirt. Carr and associates express ideas such as: work routines, agricultural techniques, instructing children, an evolving community, and the role of religion in that community. Farm life in the seventeenth century, as seen through the authors’ eyes, seems remarkably similar to modern farm experiences. One can almost smell the farm with each word in the narrative. Unfortunately, those odors include pigs. Combined with the difficulties in keeping pigs confined, it is easy enough to guess why the Cole’s let their pigs forage in the fields. Still, the sweet scent of the apple orchards, the blossoms, and the cider easily salve the mind’s palate.

This was Robert Cole’s World. Carr, Menard, and Walsh introduce less history but much more of an ethnographical study of a man pulled out of historical times. The idea was to describe life in late seventeenth-century Maryland. Moreover, this was such a rare opportunity, as well. Records apparently were not as complete for most. Furthermore, Cole’s example was rare in that his children were so well cared for after his death. In a way, Cole’s was a success story even though he spent only ten years in Maryland. His wife had died and then he died in England before he could return to his St. Mary’s home in America. So, where did Robert Cole fit in the social hierarchy? Cole did not clearly fit in the “yeoman farmer” category even though he styled himself as such. The authors impress upon the reader that, with a much greater personal worth, Cole might easily have become a gentleman had he lived, yet was content to work alongside his field hands during his ten years in Maryland. Still, his wealth, as compared with his fellow colonists, easily reflects English origins in that he ranked in the top twelve percent of society yet only possessed a net worth in the lower half. Some stratification still developed in the latter half of the seventeenth century, “social fluidity reached the bottom of white society” (Carr, Menard, and Walsh, 1991, 31). Physical resources in America evened the playing field, diversifying American society from English society. The authors’ figures display this well.

Death gave Robert Cole’s life meaning to these quantitative historians. His friend, Luke Gardiner cared for his children and ran his affairs for eleven years after his death in 1662. Gardiner proved himself to be an excellent choice, keeping detailed business accounts and improving the profits on the Cole farm. Gardiner saved as much as 35-40% of the annual income from Cole’s farm. This was even more remarkable considering that Maryland was a society of un-free labor, in definite contrast to Virginia.

Indications are that the authors studied detailed records extensively. Where records on the Cole farm lacked, they drew from nearby examples to fill in the gaps. The result was a consistent and evenly flowing picture of Robert Cole’s farm and family life, an extraordinarily satisfying account to read. The most refreshing aspect of this book is its lack of political intrigues, a polemical style of historical writing, often used over the last few centuries. Anyone who grew up on a southern tobacco farm will find this story nostalgic, for many of these techniques can be found on tobacco farms today. Old, recently-abandoned houses can be found in rural North Carolina with tobacco stick bundles on the front porches. Tobacco barns stand on many roadsides and great fields of bright green, broadleaf tobacco still blanket the gently-rolling hills. Many of us can remember our families working and selling tobacco as described in Cole’s time, perhaps from an occasional visit to a farmer’s auction with our father or grandfather. This is not only a memory of yesteryear, but of yesterday.

There still remains one aspect of the Coles’ story that is yet to be told. Robert’s son, Edward introduces the reader to the growing need for free labor. Until the demographics stabilized in Maryland and farm-life became as productive and profitable as it was in the West Indies, few could afford the luxurious expense of slaves. The Virginians found that prize first.

Edmund Morgan tells the story with an obvious scholarship, primary sources as rich as those in Robert Cole’s World, and an attractive sense of ironic humor. American Slavery explains how the mainstream, Church of England-loving Englishman found his way to Virginia and to slavery. This was not an immediate conclusion, but it was inevitable. Whereas, Robert Cole’s Maryland needed free labor to proceed with the business plan, Morgan’s Virginia absolutely had to have it for their survival.

Englishmen like Drake and Hawkins defined “flamboyant” as well as the typical Virginian entrepreneur of the late sixteenth century. Translate that as “privateer,” or more to the point, “pirate.” Unlike Maryland, founded by Catholics, Virginia was founded with the King’s religion, Anglicanism. Although Spanish Catholics became known for their abuse of Indian slaves, Robert Cole and Catholics like him did not have the money that it took to turn “crime into politics” (Morgan, 1975, 9). Anglicans found the way to that illustrious reputation without much trouble. They barely needed money, as well, riding upon the financial wave of an enthusiastic King James I.

The point that Morgan makes from the start is that the early relationship between black and white simply did not exist, when compared to later developments. He expresses an almost boyish enthusiasm in the English beginnings of America and his discussion of the black Cimarrons of Panama and their alliance with Francis Drake. It seems romantically delightful, if somewhat frightening at times. Any father can relate that enthusiasm causes trouble and so it did with drastic results for Africans as opposed to indentured servants in America.

Indians may have spent less time on work and more on leisure, but English aristocrats spent no time working and supplemented their lack of labor with the abuse of others. Native Americans were aware that the English were lazy, loved their games, and relied too heavily upon Indian charity. As Morgan imbibed, the Indians could have finished off the English simply by leaving. It seems like a plus for Indian morality. Arguments for the colonists were subtle Parliamentary distinctions, though; as Morgan infers with “Do as I say, not as I do” (Morgan, 1975, 63). Subtlety characterizes everything an Englishman does. Morgan’s tongue-in-cheek sarcasm relates this humorously. He also exposes the “Englishman” within the reader. They feel like giddy aristocrats themselves, although they probably feel sad at the consequences of the behavior they enjoy so much. Human nature is that way sometimes.

Morgan definitely does not appear to respect early seventeenth-century English methods in the Jamestown settlement of 1607. Instead, he delights in derisive jibes. Describing George Percy’s behavior during an Indian conflict, he relates how children’s brains were bashed in the river, the queen of the Paspaheghs put to the sword, and still the English demanded Indian-produced corn to keep from starving. A later event caused some colonists to be hanged, burned, broken on the “wheel,” others staked, and some shot. These men committed the most heinous crime of running away from the English to join the Indians. Colonists even burned the desperately-needed corn. Agreeably, the Jamestown colonists could have used better judgment. The runaway colonists probably used this better judgment when they ran away from the Englishmen who were as deadly as the foul well water and intoxicating as the rum.

The real concern for lazy colonists in Virginia should have been John Smith, “part actor and part man of action,” rather than Indians (Morgan, 1975, 76). Clearly, he respected the Indians not at all. Morgan compares his sensitivities more in tune with Hernando Cortez with the Aztecs than Drake with the Cimarrons. Smith got things done. His method was abusive and cruel, but not quite fatal. Moreover, the colonists themselves felt the crack of Smith’s whip often enough. Pressing uppity, lazy Englishmen, of course, was Smith’s fatal mistake. Like the Spaniards, Smith wanted to reduce the Indians to slavery. He never accomplished the task, but subsequent colonists carried his capital ideology even if they were remiss in general organization.

Could this be how slavery began, a perverted ideology that stealthily deprived an American sense of morality, blinding Americans with profit? Marylanders could have been said to have a sense of morality, but perhaps not Virginians. Perhaps it was something more direct and spontaneous? Spontaneous described well enough Opechcancanough’s surprise attack in 1622. Almost 350 dead settlers later, the English had had it. Afterward, colonists lost what little constraints they held against enslaving the Indians. Colonists went a step further, choosing instead to exterminate them. In Morgan’s brand of humor, this was a missed opportunity. Sir Edwin Sandy’s hopeful, irresponsible, and threadbare visions of the integrated community (Indians included) quickly disappeared. Still, the New World idea of chattel slavery had not stepped through the door just yet. This incident became merely an intermediate step toward slavery.

As for what happened to the colonists next, they starved. There was no one left alive to grow their food. Settlers had to fend for themselves, grow their own food rather than trade beaded baubles for corn from the Indians. Fish from the Grand Banks helped, but very little. Not everyone in Jamestown starved. Some had financial resources not often shared with the others and the colony itself had bartered Virginia produce for twenty lusty Negroes in 1619. That year also found John Rolfe bringing tobacco production to viability in Virginia. The pieces of the bomb were being assembled. The labor force was introduced to the labor source. In this erratic and desperate environment, it did not take long before it formed a partnership.

Englishmen abused each other before they abused Africans, though. Moreover, they drank enough rum to compare with Tortuga in the process. Like Morgan said, ships arrived like floating taverns. Virginia Company officers were profiting while the company failed. Abuse of alcohol, the company, and colonists made Virginia infamous ad the labor force weakened in quality. It was not long before Africans would replace white servants, men who had little to no say in their use and abuse.

Racism began gradually. Morgan indicates that it started with the Indians and spread in the abusive atmosphere to encompass all “other people.” The ones different from the “others” were the extremely few at the top of the hierarchy (the ones who did not empty their bowels in public). Morgan seems highly critical. Still, early Virginians probably deserved more than he gave them. Who can say what would have been appropriate? The historian should function as a journalist and simply tell the news and, perhaps in the spirit of Edmund Morgan, have a little fun with it, too. Criticism is a part of the process. Morgan literally danced with criticism.

Morgan quotes enough statistics at times to compare with Carr and associates. The most starkly contrasting feature between American Slavery and Robert Cole’s World is that they read like two extreme views of the same idea. One is pleasant and evokes memories of childhood on the farm while the other is absolutely horrifying. Every story has two sides, even “Little Red Riding Hood.” The wolf gets his day in court. The lamb gets heard, but is always eaten in the end. Undoubtedly, Africans were led to the slaughter in both versions.

With some, slavery was the first drunken choice. With others, it was the reasonable choice. These two very different approaches to Chesapeake history start at opposite ends of the spectrum and arrive at the same place. Both began as an English entrepreneurial endeavor, but with very different ideologies. For the Catholics in Maryland, the ideology was that of a minority, struggling for survival. Robert Cole had money and some family heirlooms, but he worked hard to build a life for his family, in little more than a shack. Whereas with Virginians, as the aristocratic elite who believed that everyone should contribute to their survival, the opposite was true. Only, their shacks were unkempt. Slavery was a natural choice for non-working Virginians who needed food, too. Maryland, on the other hand, found it to be good business sense once the money was there. Morgan saw the fact that both Virginia and Maryland were free to pursue their individual paths. Still, those paths led to a door that contradicted the approach that they took. Both colonies were free to be hypocrites, free to enslave.

What do these two books have in common? Not much in the beginning. The different societies read like night and day, hot and cold, yin and yang; most definitely, white and black. As indicated earlier, these are two disparate approaches that converge into a common social evolution resulting in the “peculiar institution.” Virginia and Maryland, once bitter religious enemies, became sisters in American slavery. Robert Cole’s World still functions as an ethnographic treatise of enormous value, especially to the historian or historical fiction writer who needs to understand the seventeenth-century Chesapeake world, or tobacco culture, or class divisions in detail.

In stark contrast, Morgan introduces Americans to history not to be paired with George Washington’s “cherry tree” fable. The very real paradox of slavery and freedom often embarrass Americans and expose a hypocrisy that can no longer hide; indeed should never remain hidden. Edmund Morgan accomplishes this in a fun and openly sarcastic way. In modern colloquial terms, he “zings” the reader. Morgan is derisive, sarcastic, verbally abusive, and absolutely justified in his opinions. He is so humorous in his method that it effectively hides the long, drawn-out recitations. Carr, Menard, and Walsh are much more subtle. Still, they pleasantly provide a vital resource for the historian and demonstrate admirably that America’s freedom was the seed that germinated class distinctions and the “peculiar institution” of slavery. In the final analysis, there is more than one way to skin a moral.

1 comment:

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