WITH IRA BERLIN
Ira Berlin is Distinguished University Professor of History
at the University of Maryland. He is author of Generations
of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves, Many Thousands
Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in America and other
The early Virginia setters discover a crop they can grow for
export, tobacco. What do they need to do so profitably?
settlers came here to get rich. And it takes them a while. They
go through a rough time called The Starving Time in Virginia -
which indeed is a rather desperate period. But eventually they
discover a commodity, tobacco, which does what they hope it will
do. It is not nearly as profitable as sugar. But it is profitable.
And that of course transforms Virginia.
We call that the Tobacco
Revolution and it transforms Virginia from a very marginal kind
of society to a society in which some people can get very, very
rich. And of course what they need to get very, very rich is labor.
But labor is in very short supply in the New World. It is in particularly
short supply in Virginia because a good part of the Native American
population has already died off because of warfare with these
invaders and in larger measure because of disease. The microbes
turn out to be extraordinarily efficient and the people of the
New World don't have resistance to a variety of European diseases.
these potential tobacco barons need labor. And they will pretty
much take it wherever they can, wherever they can get it. One
source of course is the Native American population, and they try
to use them as laborers. Another source is the European population
and they will use them as laborers, as free labor but also coerced
labor, so-called Indentured Servants. Indentured servants are
people who are essentially enslaved for a period of years. And
they will also call upon Africans as laborers.
What is interesting
about what happens in Virginia is that the Virginians, and also
other peoples in the Chesapeake region, in Maryland as well, do
not establish the system of slavery immediately. The system is
rather open. And many of these people who are of African descent
who enter Virginia fall into the status of indentured servants.
Some people of African descent escape from these forms of coerced
labor, and begin to behave pretty much like everybody else in
the Chesapeake - that is, they try to gain access to some land
and some labor to work the land, whether it is free or coerced,
whether it is indentured or enslaved. And once they do they begin
to do pretty well for themselves.
What were the differences that made a difference in early
The 17th century Chesapeake
area is indeed a multi-racial society. Native Americans, people
of African descent, and people of European descent are jumbled
up in a variety of ways and they do the kinds of things that people
do when they get jumbled up together: They work together. They
play together. They fight. They sleep together.
And until we
get the formation of plantations, until we get this new institution
which demands labor and benefits from squeezing people and wringing
out of them as much work as you possibly can, the behavior and
the interaction of Europeans and Africans and Native Americans
is remarkably open.
They distinguish themselves in a variety
of ways. They distinguish themselves by religion - differences
between Protestants and Catholics of course are of enormous significance.
They distinguish themselves by nationality - distinguishing between
Dutch and French and English and Iberian peoples. And of course
the English people distinguish between themselves and Scotch and
Welsh. And all of them distinguish themselves from the Irish,
who are viewed as yet another case entirely from the English perspective.
however they distinguish themselves, they are arranged in a hierarchical
order in which a few are on top and many are on bottom. Hierarchy
is ubiquitous in this world. The Kingdom is a hierarchy; there
is only one king. The church is a hierarchy, whether you view
it from the perspective of Rome and the pope, or whether you view
it from the perspective of Canterbury and the Archbishop. The
army is a hierarchy, with a general in charge. Wealth is distributed
in a hierarchical way. And most importantly, the family is a hierarchy
in which the father stands at the head.
And the idea of the
father writ large as the pope, as the king, as the general, is
something which unites all of these hierarchies - and makes the
notion that hierarchy is providential. It's the way God ordered
the world. So some people are on the top and others on the bottom.
Whether they are indentured servants, slaves, or property-less,
free laborers, it's not viewed as anything unusual.
hierarchies, of course, is what distinguishes this world from
the radically different world of post- July 4th 1776 when suddenly
equality becomes the standard currency. And the new presumption
is that all men are created equal.
How did Bacon's Rebellion mark a turning point in American
ideas of race, giving birth to, as Edmund Morgan says, both black
slavery and American freedom?
Bacon's Rebellion is an event which begins to redefine notions
of race on the North American continent, or at least in the Chesapeake
Before Bacon's Rebellion we certainly have distinctions
made between blacks and whites, and we certainly have attitudes
on the part of whites and presumably on the part of blacks where
they differentiate themselves and where they probably think each
is superior to the other.
Nonetheless, we see them behaving
pretty much the same way. Some numbers of people of African descent
have moved into the land owning class, are sometimes owning the
servants, are connected with churches, are cognizant of the legal
system and so on.
And of course substantial numbers of people
of European descent are caught in a system of coerced labor called
indentured servitude. And indentured servants, whether they are
black or white, are pretty much treated the same way as slaves.
Bacon's Rebellion changes that, and what seems to
be crucial in changing that is the consolidation after Bacon's
Rebellion of a planter class. The planters had not been able to
control this rowdy labor force of servants and slaves. But soon
after Bacon's Rebellion they increasingly distinguish between
people of African descent and people of European descent. They
enact laws which say that people of African descent are hereditary
slaves. And they increasingly give some power to white independent
white farmers and land holders.
That increased power is not
equality. Dirt farmers are not elected to the House of Burgess
in Virginia; the planters monopolize those offices. But they do
participate in the political system. In other words we see slavery
and freedom being invented at the same moment.
Now what is interesting
about this is that we normally say that slavery and freedom are
opposite things -that they are diametrically opposed. But what
we see here in Virginia in the late 17th century, around Bacon's
Rebellion, is that freedom and slavery are created at the same
How do racial ideas change after Bacon's Rebellion?
What interests us here is how that sense of Otherness continually
gains new and different meanings over time and place. In Virginia
prior to Bacon's Rebellion we had a much more open system. We
have black planters and white planters, black indentured servants
and slaves, we have white people who are indentured servants and
living in un-freedom.
In that kind of world, distinctions between
black and white are of course made. But very few people talk about
black people as being stupid or dull or ignorant or dirty or lazy.
When they speak of Anthony Johnson [a black planter] there may
be disdain in their voice, but generally it is that perhaps he
is too clever, he is manipulative. He is untrustworthy. He is
a little bit too smooth for them. But somebody like Anthony Johnson
has been so successful that it would be foolish to denounce him
as stupid or lazy or unproductive.
When we move into the post-Bacon's
Rebellion world where slavery and the plantation economy are in
place, where black people are arriving in large numbers from Africa,
the view of black people changes very rapidly. It is not simply
slavery that transforms notions of race. It is this plantation
slavery, the advent of the plantation and disciplined, exploitative
labor that begins to transform notions of race.
And it is that
which I am concerned with here. It's not the origins of ideas
of race but how race is continually transformed and given different
meanings in different circumstances.
Why did Africans become the slaves of choice in North America?
The question of why Africans
become the people of choice to be enslaved in the New World is
a question that doesn't have a simple answer. Or it certainly
doesn't have an agreed upon answer. There is certainly a great
need for labor in the New World, generally because the Native
American peoples die at enormous rates when confronted with the
diseases of the Old World, be it African or be it European.
some ways what we see taking place after Christopher Columbus
in the post Columbian world, is a re-peopling of the world because
of the enormous mortality rates and the holocaust of Native American
But still, we had a choice of laborers - so why not
the European laborers? We know that Europeans have no problem
chopping each other up into small pieces in a series of wars.
The Protestants don't like Catholics and Catholics don't like
Protestants. And from the English perspective, there seems to
be one particular population that does in fact seem slavish or
appropriate to enslave. And they, of course, are the Irish.
is precisely at the same time that the English are settling the
New World that they are conquering Ireland. They do so with all
of the brutality of the destruction of Native American peoples.
And they do so with all of the horrors of the transatlantic slave
The Irish are viewed as a lesser people because they
have a kind of semi- nomadic existence. They are viewed as lesser
people because of their organization into clans. They are viewed
as a lesser people because they are not simply heathen they are
something worse than heathen from the English perspective: they
So it is a real question in the 17th century
why the English enslave Africans. And I don't think there is an
easy or an agreed upon answer to that. Some claim that the question
turns upon color distinctions, that there are certain things you
can't do to people of European descent, of white skin.
I am uncomfortable with those explanations. I think the explanation
may lie more in accessibility, the ability to access slave labor.
And then a certain precedent is established once the system is
going. By the 17th century African slavery has existed for almost
two centuries, which in some ways makes it easier to move against
Africans than to move against people of European descent, and
against the Irish.
When is slavery as an institution first challenged on ethical
The questioning of slavery as an institution
is a new, radical and recent idea. Questioning the validity, the
sanctity, the morality of the institution of slavery comes very,
very late in the history of the world. Not till the end of the
18th century, not until the Age of Revolution do we see the institution
of slavery questioned. Up until that time slavery is not only
ubiquitous, slavery is sanctioned by the state, by the church,
by the Christian bible, by the Koran, and by the various texts
of other religions.
So this questioning of slavery is a radical
departure from the past. And it separates our modern world, in
which slavery seems a ridiculously hateful, spiteful, backwards
and oppressive institution, from the past. And so this becomes
a major dividing point in human history.
Why does Thomas Jefferson, the apostle of freedom, become
the first prominent American to give voice to suspicions of innate
black inferiority? Why do the new ideas of equality give rise
to racial thinking?
is often thought of as a paradoxical figure. He is the great spokesman
for equality, the author of the Declaration of Independence, a
man seeped in the egalitarian revolutionary traditions of the
late 18th century, and he likes to think of himself that way.
course Jefferson was also a slave holder. And perhaps more than
a slave holder. It is he perhaps more than anybody else in his
Notes on the State of Virginia who first broaches it "as a possibility,"
he says, that black people are different than white people, that
Africans are different than Europeans.
And this difference
is not simply a product of circumstance, it is not simply a product
of the environment but Jefferson broaches this possibility that
it is something much deeper, something innate. We would say in
our own language - Jefferson didn't have this language - we would
say genetic. Jefferson thus in some ways becomes the father of
a school of racial thought which of course stands in many ways
in opposition to the great egalitarian tradition and this is viewed
as a great paradox.
From my perspective it is not so much a
paradox. It seems to me what we have is that Jefferson the egalitarian
and the slaver holder perhaps more than anybody else is a person
who has thought very deeply about this. He wrestles with these
concerns. And his wrestling with these concerns takes him in a
variety of directions.
The American Revolution is an extraordinarily
important event in world history. And combined with the French
Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the revolutions in Latin America,
this Age of Revolution transforms not simply our own nation but
transforms the world as well.
After the American Revolution,
after the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Declaration of
Independence, the presumption is that all men are created equal.
Equality is the point. And what then has to be explained for the
very first time in world history is inequality. And why inequality
exists. In other words, if all men are created equal, why are
some men and women still slaves?
And the explanation for the
persistence of slavery can be: "Well, perhaps there is something
wrong with that notion of equality." In which case the whole notion
of the post Revolutionary world, the whole notion of American
nationality, is also wrong.
Or the explanation can be: "Perhaps
these people who are enslaved are not quite men." And of course
that leads us to a whole sea change in terms of racial thought.
So, the American Revolution gives rise to a tradition of freedom
AND a tradition of racialization?
The American Revolution becomes
a critical marker in our understanding of America's racial history.
From the American Revolution come these two great and oppositional
traditions in American life.
First are those people who take
seriously the ideals of the American Revolution, that all men
are created equal. And out of that radical egalitarian tradition
comes the tradition of racial equality, comes the tradition of
abolition, and many other egalitarian traditions.
In some ways
the great spokesperson for this tradition are slaves and former
slaves themselves - Richard Allen to Frederick Douglass through
Martin Luther King. They become the great spokesmen for the American
egalitarian tradition and continually hose us down with the rhetoric
of the Declaration of Independence, reminding us of our heritage.
also out of the Declaration of Independence comes a darker tradition.
That tradition is saying that while we accept the notion that
all men are created equal but then perhaps some of those people
who are enslaved are not quite men. We will keep our ideas of
American nationality but we will write certain people out of the
And that is a tradition which also developed
and comes to fruition in the in the 19th century, in the great
defenders of the institution of slavery, the opponents to emancipation,
the protagonists of segregation and Jim Crow.
And so again,
this one moment when we become a nation, becomes critical for
our understanding of both American nationality and race. Race
and freedom are of one piece, are born at that same moment. And
that is why we are continually struggling with it all the way
into the 21st century.
How do anti-black prejudices grow into an ideology of white
The 19th century is a period
of radical transformation of slavery. And with the radical transformation
of slavery comes a radical transformation of ideas about race.
Some of those ideas are a product of the slave holder's response
to the growing anti-slavery movement. Public opinion throughout
the world is turning against the institution of slavery. Slaveholders
have to defend this institution of slavery in new ways.
this pushes them to new ideas about race. They start talking about
the childlike nature of slaves, simple folk incapable of full
adulthood, of protecting themselves, in need of a master. Hence
slavery, they claim, is a benevolent institution. Very, very few
slave holders spoke about their slaves that way in the 18th century.
slave holders seemed to go in the opposite direction, depicting
slaves as inhuman beasts, always ready to revolt, to plant a hatchet
in the back of their owner's head. So, if we have the image of
the slave child, we also have the image of the slave beast. They
too are in need of a master lest they run rough-shod over society
raping, pillaging, destroying civilization. So notions about race
don't remain constant. They are constantly changing. And in some
measure they are constantly changing because the institution of
slavery itself is constantly changing.
And it is that connection
between the structure of slavery and how the institution works,
and how masters and slaves struggle against each other, which
of course is part of the way in which ideas about race are redefined.
Why doesn't the abolition of slavery bring an end to anti-black
feelings? Instead, racism becomes even more virulent at the end
of the 19th century.
If one of the markers of America's racial
history is the advent of the plantation, and another marker is
the American Revolution, certainly the third stop is the Civil
War and Reconstruction that follows. With the Civil War of course
there is a reclaiming of the great egalitarian tradition, the
great tradition of the revolution, and of the Declaration of Independence
that all men are created equal.
It is upon that foundation upon
which emancipation rests. Indeed, one of the things that we see
both during the Civil War in the northern states and after the
Civil War throughout the nation is a real recession of the color
line, a real redrawing of lines in attitudes, in ideas, in laws,
that are passed. Which open up the society to equal participation
in a variety of different ways.
Black people of course are
freed, they are made citizens, they participate in the great triumph
of the Union. Some 200,000 black men fight in the Union army.
That gives them a claim to citizenship that they continue to advertise
and which in some measure is recognized.
following the Civil War is a great egalitarian experiment and
its successes are numerous. It ultimately fails and of course
in its wake comes Jim Crow, comes segregation, comes lynching
as well. And with that comes another transformation of notions
of race, transformations which in some ways draw perhaps even
a harder line between white and black, draw even meaner racial
Slavery, for whatever else it was, brought white
people and black people together; they had to work together. It
made no sense to segregate a slave. By defining a person as a
slave you already distinguished them from a free person, distinguished
white from black.
But once those legal distinctions disappeared
and if you wanted to maintain the social distinctions, you had
to create a whole other set of institutions which are eventually
called segregation. Moreover, since the line between black and
white was no longer hedged by the institution of slavery, you
had to create other fences, other barriers to make sure you couldn't
confuse a white and black. After all, black people were now citizens
of this nation. They had all of the rights of citizens; you had
to find ways to either eliminate those rights or to make sure
that they were not exercised.
And of course this unleashes an
enormous amount of violence, violence that is in some ways implicit
in the institution of slavery, but must be explicit in maintaining
the distinctions between whites and blacks in the post-Emancipation
world. And the more competitive that blacks become with white
people, of course, the more dangerous they seem.
One of the
interesting things is that many of the institutions that develop
in the post-Reconstruction United States had their origins not
so much in the slave South but in the free North. It is in the
North where the first system of segregation first begins. It is
there where race riots first appear. These institutions of course
in some ways are superfluous to a slave society.
Weren't 19th century European immigrants 'raced'?
During the late 19th century
the nature of immigration to the Americas changes. The 17th and
18th centuries are the great centuries of African migration. The
overwhelming majority of people who come to the New World before
1800 are Africans. In the 19th century that changes. The slave
trade is closed and European immigration ultimately becomes the
dominant form of immigration.
Most of these European peoples
are at the bottom of American society. They are the workers and
they are the day laborers, and they are factory workers in particular.
Many of the things which are said about these European workers
are the same thing which are said at various times about people
of African descent. Despite the fact that they are working people,
they are lazy. They are untrustworthy. They can't show up to the
factory on time. They are undisciplined. They are improvident.
And all of these things attach themselves at various times to
a whole series of European peoples, beginning with the Irish,
then Germans in the 1860s, then a whole series of eastern Europeans
and northern Europeans - Italians, Slavs, and Nordic people as
In some ways this is a process of racialization, of defining
people at the bottom as Others. One of the ways of course that
these new immigrants try to protect themselves is to distinguish
themselves from that furthest pole of Otherness. They to try to
distinguish themselves from black people. And in the process of
doing this, they often adopt the very language which is used against
So, once again, we have these two great traditions. One
tradition of equality coming out of the Declaration of Independence
and this is a tradition that many immigrant and working peoples
identify themselves with. And then there is that other tradition
of defining people as Others - that is, separating them out.
What does it mean to be an American?
Defining ourselves as a people
means defining who is in but it also means defining who is out.
These are reciprocal processes.
I think for all of us it begins
with the Declaration of Independence. It begins with Jefferson's
great promise of American nationality. And extends through the
Abolitionist Movement, through the Feminist Movement, through
the Labor Movement, and an attempt in some ways to fulfill the
promise of the Declaration of Independence. The struggle for emancipation
during the Civil War is part of this struggle. So is the struggle
for decent wages, the Civil Rights Movement. We define who we
are by identifying our values and saying collectively that this
is what we believe.
But at the very same time when we are doing
this we are also defining who we are not. And defining who we
are not means sometimes defining groups of people as the Other.
Sometimes it means demonizing other people as we distinguish ourselves
It seems to me that what is most painful about this
process is that these are two sides to the same coin. The very
process of defining who is in also is a process of defining who
is out. And hence an Other maybe will always be with us. Even
as we try to celebrate what is best and what is most universal
in American life.
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