CHAPTER 10. THE IMPACT OF RACISM

ON THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE OF THE THIRTEEN COLONIES

Despite the differences between the three regions of the thirteen colonies, most of the future states had one thing in common: racism. This chapter explains how the common denominator of slavery existed in or influenced all the colonies in America. The cultural diversity among the three geographical regions would eventually give way before the onslaught of the overpowering demands of maintaining slavery in the colonies.

The contention of this book is that the United States has always had a tripartite social structure: a small upper class, a large middle class, and a lower class (or caste) with blacks largely concentrated in this lower class. The dynamics between these three groups largely account for the country's exceptionalism. American society and culture is largely the result of the middle-class's fear of blacks. This fear was instrumental in the adoption of the equality-of-opportunity racism as the core of American culture.

A Self-Contented Middle Class

Late in his career the brilliant historian Richard Hofstadter came to be heavily influenced by the consensus school of American history. This can be seen in his work on the thirteen colonies. Hofstadter (1971:33) noted that in America there was an absence not only of a nobility but also of all those institutions that supported the noble class. There was no royal court, no churches filled with hierarchical pomp and pageantry, and no ancient universities. In fact, at least for the white population, the thirteen colonies were largely middle-class societies. Even in the South there existed a large class of at least comfortable white farmers. Throughout the country, the middle class was so numerous and relatively aggressive that even the upper class had to be cautious about exercising its powers.

Hofstadter noted that great opportunities for economic advancement and class mobility existed in the colonies. While there were many reasons for this, two stand out. First, there was an abundance of available land. Anyone dissatisfied with life in the populated areas could always move toward the back country and establish a farm. Hence, the frontier provided a convenient safety valve for the nation. This option simply was not available in Europe.

Second, the scarcity of workmen contributed to a high degree of class mobility. The demand for labor was so high that workmen's wages were also comparatively high. Indeed, estimates put the wages of colonial workmen as two or three times what they were in England (Hofstadter 1971:140-141).

In a study of upward mobility, Jackson Main (cited in Pessen 1973:81) found that there were remarkable opportunities for upward mobility for men of modest property. In fact, many of the wealthiest American citizens in the eighteenth century had been born into the middle class. This, of course, was primarily due to such factors as abundant resources, scarce labor, and open markets.

Over time, however, this advantage in social mobility declined. Work on colonial cities supports this argument. Pessen (1973:84-85) did his own mobility study and concluded from four northern cities that the great majority of wealthy persons were descendants of parents and families that combined affluence and high social status. The proportion of wealthy people coming from wealthy parents and families in the antebellum period was New York City (95 percent), Brooklyn (81 percent), Philadelphia (92 percent), and Boston (94 percent). Other studies have found that many of the urban workers found themselves trapped in low-paying jobs and lived just above the poverty level (see McCusker and Menard 1985:271).

The problem with this emphasis on social mobility is that it masks the underlying racism in the American system. What really made the colonists, and coming generations of middle-class Americans, so contented was their privileged position vis-a-vis the black caste system.

Pervasiveness of Slavery

A unique feature of the thirteen colonies as compared to Europe was the existence of slavery. While most people are aware of slavery in the South, few are aware of the history of slavery in the North. In The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North, Arthur Zilversmit (1967) notes that during the debates on a constitutional ban on slavery in New York State, an opponent of the ban took the unorthodox point of view that if New Yorkers did not mention slavery, future generations would never learn that the state had ever had slavery. The author says that the prediction proved all too accurate.

The North did, indeed, have slavery. Slavery had existed in Massachusetts at least since 1638. Zilversmit (1967:3) says that by 1715 northerners owned one out of every five slaves in North America. Indeed, there were about 12,500 blacks in New England and the middle colonies. Moreover, New England was intimately involved in the slavery traffic, which in turn was part of a more general pattern known as the "triangular trade." In the triangular trade, Yankee ships carried cargoes of rum for the Guinea trade. In Africa, they would trade one hundred gallons of rum per each black male. The Yankees then set sail for the West Indies. Here they exchanged the slaves for a cargo of molasses. They then took this cargo to the distilleries of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, where they produced more rum for the Guinea trade.

The triangular trade was very important to the wealth of the North, for it supported an entire industry of traders, distillers, and shipbuilders. The primary ports involved were Newport and Bristol, followed by Boston, Salem, and Providence. Other cities included Portsmouth, New London, and New York. Newport at one time had as many as 170 vessels (half its merchant fleet) engaged in slaving (Hofstadter 1971). These ships supplied most of the slaves to the West Indies, while the British brought slaves to the thirteen colonies. Others ships, not involved in the triangle trade, brought fish and other foodstuffs to the Caribbean to feed the slaves. Nevertheless, these ships also engaged in slave trading. They would take some slaves and drop them off at Charleston or in Virginia, while bringing the most domesticated blacks to the northern market to serve as house servants or artisans.

While the proportion of blacks in the New England population never reached more than 2.2 percent, this statistic hides a great deal of variation among the colonies in this region (Zilversmit 1967:4). Just prior to the American Revolution, the Connecticut population was 3 percent black, and Rhode Island was 6 percent black. By contrast, New Hampshire and Vermont had very few slaves.

All the regions set up black codes to control the free black population severely. These laws worked to segregate blacks from whites and to set up a legally separate caste. In Massachusetts, as early as the 1680s, the construction of black codes began with attempts to ban the sale of liquor to blacks (Rice 1975:49-50). In 1703 the colony applied a curfew to this special population, and two years later it passed an act prohibiting miscegenation.

While differing from New England in the pattern of its landownership, every one of the middle colonies permitted slavery. Except for Pennsylvania, slavery in the region was a major problem (Rice 1975:49). New Jersey was 8 percent black overall (with as high as 12 percent in East Jersey). In 1770 New York was as much as 12.5 percent black. New York's 1712 slave law was the harshest of the northern colonial codes. This repressive law originated from the panic reaction of New Yorkers to a major slave revolt in which nine whites had been killed. As punishment, the authorities put to death twenty-one blacks. The fear of insurrection spread to New Jersey, and in 1714 that colony also passed a strict slave code. As part of the restrictive codes, all the middle colonies adopted separate courts to try blacks (which denied this population access to regular jury trials).

How did the North justify this brutal treatment of black Americans? The primary defense came from the religious idea that blacks were "savages" and "heathens" (Moore 1971:81-82). The reasoning was that since slaves were not Christians, they did not deserve the same treatment as whites. As this idea faded with time and the increasing Christian religious education and conversion of blacks, the doctrine of racial inferiority came to the fore.

In addition to forgetting about northern slavery, Americans have tended to forget how poorly northern colonists treated the black freedmen. Tocqueville (1969:343) had concluded that race prejudice was actually stronger in the northern states than in the southern states. In those states that had abolished slavery, northern whites had to rely more directly on an ideology of biological racism in order to reinforce patterns of racial subordination of the blacks. Louis Filler (1960:15) writes that by 1850 there were 434,495 free blacks as against 3,204,313 slaves or approximately one free black in eight. These free blacks found themselves "universally despised" and degraded, facing the constant fear that at any time they could be remanded to slavery. Many of these people found themselves in a worse economic situation than slavery, often being incapable of even providing for themselves. A number of European commentators, such as the actress Frances Kemble (quoted in Zilversmit 1967:222-223), noted how poorly the freedmen were treated in Philadelphia. She compared the free blacks to Hebrew lepers and pariahs, two historically degraded and rejected groups. Many of the complaints of white Americans about the freedmen closely resemble the complaints of today's whites about blacks. They saw free blacks as given to idleness, frolicking, drunkenness, dishonesty, and criminality. This racist stereotype was so widespread that somewhat later even the abolitionists blamed the conduct of the freedmen for the increasingly hostile public opinion towards the idea of abolition.

Fear of Slave Revolts

One of the greatest fears of white society was the possibility of slave revolts. In American Negro Slave Revolts Herbert Aptheker (1943) uncovered about 250 slave revolts where a minimum of ten slaves joined in the activity. Most historians (Wilson 1973:84-85) think that because of the severity of the slavery system, only about a dozen slave revolts actually occurred. But those dozen revolts spread considerable hysteria among the colonists. An additional fear was the possibility of indentured servants and other discontented whites joining in the revolt (see Zinn 1980:37).

The first large-scale revolt occurred in New York in 1712. The last slave insurrection, over a century later, was the worst. In the spring of 1828 a slave residing in Southampton County, Virginia heard a voice from heaven that blacks should take up arms (Aptheker 1969). Following a solar eclipse, the slave became convinced that he had a divine mission. So in February 1831 Nat Turner told four other blacks of his plans for rebellion. In August the revolt started with just six slaves. Turner killed his master and the master's family. Within twenty-four hours, seventy slaves had joined the revolt. Covering a distance of some twenty miles, the group killed fifty-seven whites. Heading for the county seat of Jerusalem, some of the rebels stopped at the home of a wealthy plantation owner. Here a group of whites confronted them. The whites later reported that the guns of the slaves were not fit for use, and hence the insurrectionists were easily routed.

The revolt scared the southern authorities. They responded by sending three artillery companies with a field piece. Also sent was a detachment of men from two warships. Hundreds of other soldiers from volunteer and militia companies joined these forces. A rough estimate puts the number of blacks killed in the ensuing retaliation at 200. Turner himself was caught on October 30 and hanged November 11, 1831. Nat Turner's rebellion was the last of the slave revolts; henceforth, the South was an armed camp (Wilson 1973:85).

Indentured Servants

In addition to black slaves, there was a large group of indentured servants, many of whom were virtually treated as slaves. More than half the colonists to North America originally came as servants with as many as 10 to 15 percent of the total population being indentured servants at any given time (Hofstadter 1971:34; Aptheker 1966:36; also see Smith 1971 and Alderman 1975). As late as 1755, 10 percent of the population of Maryland consisted of white servants (Zinn 1980:46).

Abbott Smith in Colonists in Bondage (1971) studied the upward mobility of indentured servants. Around 80 percent of them either died during their servitude or went back to England, or joined the class known as "poor whites." There was upward mobility, but it was rare and primarily for the naturally gifted or the lucky.

Zinn (1980:36) maintains that some of these whites did become involved in slave revolts. One such incident of interracial cooperation occurred in Gloucester County, Virginia, where in 1663 indentured white servants and black slaves conspired to gain their freedom. The plotters were betrayed to the authorities, and many of the rebel leaders subsequently executed.

Considerable Inequality in the Thirteen Colonies

The myth of a satisfied white middle class in the thirteen colonies obscures the fact of substantial inequality in the thirteen colonies. For instance, as much as one-fourth or one-fifth of the population of Massachusetts had little beyond immediate personal belongings. If indentured servants are added to this, the proportion rises to nearly one-third of the white population (Main 1965:41-42; 33). In New Jersey even the richest counties had a large population of landless agricultural laborers. In Maryland some 60 percent of the planters had only enough income from their farms to support the cruder necessities of life (Eddis 1969:xvi- xviii). About a quarter of the white male population in Virginia possessed no land and little personal property. When the slave population is added, the proportion rises to 40 percent. In the richer parishes of South Carolina, the inclusion of slaves in the ranks of unpropertied laborers brings the proportion of the population without property to nearly 90 percent (see Main 1965:57).

 

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