A tad over six months ago, I was writing a series about economics and labor. In my last installment, here, I said I would talk about the Union movement in the US. But before I can do that, I realized that I have to talk about what the US looked like economically from the early days of colonization. I thought that could be quickly researched and dispatched. As it turned out, as I will explain later, I hit a bump that I just couldn’t get past. Once I got past it, I had to do a lot of thinking and reevaluating of a lot of my own education and beliefs. Then I had to figure out how to put the pieces together. The result was that instead of taking me 2 weeks to put it together, it has taken 6 months. I am still wrestling with my findings and what they tell me about me as a person and us as a country. I hope my readers can assist me with that battle.
I begin with the notion that there were essentially 3 economies in the colonies. One was the urban economy. The urban economy consisted of tradesmen (furs, timber, etc), craftsmen (apothecaries, wig makers, blacksmiths, etc), fishermen and hunters, shopkeepers and merchants. This accounted for about 5% of the colonial population.
Another economy was what I call the agrarian economy. This economy was differentiated by the one I will discuss next, by the size of the farms. This economy consisted of the family farm, which raised produce and livestock on about 35 acres or less. What the family did not use was traded in the nearby town or city, so these farms did depend on having some town or city near enough to go to for trade. Often their produce or livestock was bartered in exchange for needed goods or services rather than exchanging moneys. This economy accounted for 90% of the colonial population.
The third economy was the plantation economy. Plantations, in maturity, were an economy unto themselves. The plantation had the craftsmen on site. They produced enough to feed the entire plantation population and enough more to yield large profits for their owners. They ranged in size from 500 to 1000 acres and raised about 5000 plants. This is where I hit my bump. While it was easy to figure out who the early urban settlers were before coming to the colonies, and who the early farmers were, I could not figure out how a new settler could look at virgin territory and bingo, there would be a plantation. Who were the settlers who came to the colonies with the idea of such a large enterprise? How did they transform the virgin land to a high producing plantation?
I should point out that I have been trained to do academic research. So I first laid out a series of questions that I would need to answer in order to get over the bump. The first question was, who were these plantation owners before they migrated? I began looking up who owned plantations and who they were back home. I was not terribly surprised to find out that the majority that I was able to identify were from noble families or attached to noble estates. That is, they were either children of nobles or they were servants in the castle or manor (who were also frequently children of nobles), most from England or what is now the United Kingdom. However, those who were children of nobles were second, third or later sons, not the first sons. The first sons would inherit the estates in their homeland. Second and later sons would become knights, lesser nobles with no land claims, scribes, religious, etc. The best they could hope for is that the elder son would die without an heir, and they could inherit the estate.
These children of nobles came over to the colonies knowing that there was land for the taking (in many cases they bought their lands from royalty to whom the king had granted stakeholds). They believed that land ownership was the ticket to wealth, because that is how it had operated in their homelands. However, in Europe, land ownership led to wealth in large part because owning the land meant owning the labor of the peasants who worked the land. Since all the land was owned, the peasants had no choice but to stay and work it. They had to put total effort in, in order to meet the nobleman’s tax and have enough left over to feed and clothe the family. And in a good year, perhaps put aside a small profit. These children of nobles did not themselves have the skills to work the land or even to build their homes. So how did they convert virgin territory to plantations? At what point did slavery come in? I had so many questions.
During my search, I came upon articles about the Scottish prisoners of Dunbar and Worchester in 1650 and 1651. Of 10000 prisoners taken in the battle of Dunbar, 150 were sent as indentured servants to Massachusetts to work in the iron works. Another batch were sent after the Battle of Worchester to Massachusetts. However, between the two battles, about 3000 were also sent to Virginia, where the plantation owners bid for their services. These men were essentially slaves, except that their indenture only lasted for 7 years. And a bit more research indicated that the plantations had been using indentured servants, some prisoners and some debtors, to work the lands and build the homesteads. The original plantation houses were not, at that time, the grand estates we see today.
However, acquiring indentured servants was not an easy task, and there was not always a big battle with a lot of captured soldiers. When the 7 year indenture was over, these servants did not stay with the ones who had acquired their services. They would move on to their own land or their own crafts and there was nothing the plantation owner could do to stop them. A more permanent solution was needed.
As early as 1501, the Spaniards had been bringing slaves from Africa to Santo Domingo to work the sugar farms. This was not, however, race based slavery. The Spaniards bought the slaves from African tribes who had defeated other African tribes and taken the defeated tribes persons as prisoners. It was conquest based slavery. This is an important distinction. Never, in the known history of humankind, had slavery been race based. The most common form of slavery had been conquest based, the second most common form had been debt based. And, rarely had it been for life.
In 1619, 20 slaves were brought to Virginia. However, they were most likely more like indentured servants who were freed after their indenture. The first slave carrier was built and launched in 1636 in Massachusetts (so much for it being a southern thing). In fact, Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641. Up to this time, most cheap labor was indentured servants. Over time, owning slaves became legal pretty much throughout the colonies.
So, for all the “coming to America for religious freedom” talk, how did such “religious” people condone slavery? I found something interesting. There is an obscure verse in Genesis (Genesis 4:15) that suggests that God put a mark on Cain so that anybody who harms him should be slain. Until slavery took hold in the colonies, I can only find reference to the “Mark of Cain” in a few obscure places usually referring to somebody with a deformity from birth. At some point, churches in the colonies began to refer to “Mark of Cain” as referring to skin color, that people of color were decedents of Cain, inferior to white people and destined for punishment for the sin of Cain. In other words, they justified their ownership of human beings by perverting their own religion. What had been an obscure verse with little application became a mainstay in many protestant churches. It is important to note here that that interpretation was never adopted by either the Catholic church or certain mainstream churches like High Anglican, Quaker and Presbyterian. (In fact, it was those churches that incubated the anti slavery movement later on.) The notion of white supremacy was created to enable the economic success of the slaveowners. (If you look at the ratio of large scale plantation owners to the population, it is about the same as the ratio of wealthy corporate moguls to current population.) It could be argued that the reason for the article in the first amendment, freedom of religion, is because many of the founding fathers wanted to ensure that they would be able to continue to own slaves.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, the new interpretation of that verse in Genesis had become widely accepted as a major piece of a large portion of Protestantism. By the War Between the States, it was cemented. This was the genesis of White Supremacy: the slaveholders cynically perverted their religion, their way of relating to their God, in order to facilitate economic bounty. That perversion stuck. When the South was fighting the North, it was over slavery. But by this time, it was over more than that. It was over their religion, the one they had modified to allow a few to own human beings. When the war ended, the slaves were legally freed. But the religion remained, and does to this day. That religion is not just in the south. It also has adherents in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri and many other states. It can’t be legislated away as long as we have freedom of religion. It can’t be removed by force. Somehow, we have to figure out how to make those who believe that white people are superior change that belief. The election of a black person to the presidency brought that belief to the surface so we can all see it, now we have to figure out how to wipe it clean. Surely this is one way the sins of the fathers are visited on the children.