Maya Jasanoff, New York Review of Books [original article contains additional images/italics]
The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World
by Greg Grandin
Picador, 400 pp., $19.00 (paper)
New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America
by Wendy Warren
Liveright, 368 pp., $29.95
One hundred and fifty years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, the nation’s first black president paid tribute to “a century and a half of freedom—not simply for former slaves, but for all of us.” It sounds innocuous enough till you start listening to the very different kinds of political rhetoric around us. All of us are not free, insists the Black Lives Matter movement, when “the afterlife of slavery” endures in police brutality and mass incarceration. All of us are not free, says the Occupy movement, when student loans impose “debt slavery” on the middle and working classes. All of us are not free, protests the Tea Party, when “slavery” lurks within big government. Social Security? “A form of modern, twenty-first-century slavery,” says Florida congressman Allen West. The national debt? “It’s going to be like slavery when that note is due,” says Sarah Palin. Obamacare? “Worse than slavery,” says Ben Carson. Black, white, left, right—all of us, it seems, can be enslaved now.
Americans learn about slavery as an “original sin” that tempted the better angels of our nation’s egalitarian nature. But “the thing about American slavery,” writes Greg Grandin in his 2014 book The Empire of Necessity, about an uprising on a slave ship off the coast of Chile and the successful effort to end it, is that “it never was just about slavery.” It was about an idea of freedom that depended on owning and protecting personal property. As more and more settlers arrived in the English colonies, the property they owned increasingly took the human form of African slaves. Edmund Morgan captured the paradox in the title of his classic American Slavery, American Freedom: “Freedom for some required the enslavement of others.” When the patriots protested British taxation as a form of “slavery,” they weren’t being hypocrites. They were defending what they believed to be the essence of freedom: the right to preserve their property.
The Empire of Necessity explores “the fullness of the paradox of freedom and slavery” in the America of the early 1800s. Yet to understand the chokehold of slavery on American ideas of freedom, it helps to go back to the beginning. At the time of the Revolution, slavery had been a fixture of the thirteen colonies for as long as the US today has been without it. “Slavery was in England’s American colonies, even its New England colonies, from the very beginning,” explains Princeton historian Wendy Warren in her deeply thoughtful, elegantly written New England Bound, an exploration of captivity in seventeenth-century New England. The Puritan ideal of a “city on a hill,” long held up as a model of America at its communitarian best, actually rested on the backs of “numerous enslaved and colonized people.”
New England was never a “slave society”—where slaves performed the bulk of labor—but it depended heavily on slavery nonetheless, due to its economic entanglement with the Caribbean. As a crucial supplier of provisions to the sugar islands, New England, one captain observed, was truly “the key of the Indies without w[hi]ch Jamaica, Barbados & the Caribee Islands are not able to subsist.” Fortunes made in sugar, fish, and slaves underpinned the development of New England colonies in turn, not least the colleges taking shape in Cambridge, Providence, and New Haven.
The greatest revelations of New England Bound lie in Warren’s meticulous reconstruction of slavery in colonial New England. Enslaved Africans and Indians have been “largely invisible” to historians of the region in part because they blended into the economy alongside free laborers. They weren’t invisible to colonists. With slaves comprising 5 to 10 percent of the urban population, anyone in a New England town would have seen slaves hauling water, loading warehouses, “boxing” pine trees for turpentine, or serving meals in a wealthy family’s house.
Warren pores over the patchy archival record with a probing eye and an ear keen to silences. One of Boston’s first colonists orders a slave to rape and impregnate another “so that he might own a ‘breed of Negroes’” to cultivate his land. In the heat of King Philip’s War in 1675 and 1676, the white women of Marblehead, Massachusetts, set upon two Indian captives with sticks and stones, flaying them alive till “their heads [were] off and gone, and their flesh in a manner pulled from their bones.” The townspeople of Salem come across the body of a slave named John, his chest torn by a bullet fired from the bottom of his rib cage. He had leaned on a long-barreled musket and shot himself. Cotton Mather receives a slave as a present from his congregation and immediately renamed the man, because, as Warren writes, “What’s in a name? Mastery.”
In 1700 the Massachusetts judge Samuel Sewall published the colony’s first call for abolition, albeit to deaf ears. The number of slaves in New England increased up to the 1750s, then started falling; in the 1780s all the New England states passed laws phasing out slavery. By the 1830s, slavery had receded so far from New Englanders’ sense of themselves that as sophisticated an authority on colonial times as Nathaniel Hawthorne was astonished to see black people on a visit to Williamstown, because he associated them with the cotton plantations of the South. But the marks had been made. Through laws and labor practices, ideas about freedom and rights, the “thread of slavery” had been “so woven into the fabric of society that pulling it out…threatened to wreck the entire design.” ...