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HISTORY: Transformation and Expansion of Slavery


HISTORY: Transformation and Expansion of Slavery


The emergence of slavery as racialized capital is essential to the understanding of history in colonial America. However, the understanding and explanations for the transformation and expansion of slavery have been a source for debate for a very long time. Historians Edmund Morgan and Holly Brewer both offer respectively isolated and widespread ideas about the transformation and expansion of slavery in the United States, particularly in Virginia.

Morgan’s understanding of traditional slavery within the United States as a form of involuntary labor and social control is that it emerged as a solution to the class tensions between landowners and freedmen. He argues that it was because of the use of slavery that Virginia was able to enter into the political tradition of a democratic republic in New England, hence the paradox of freedom and slavery in America. Conversely, Brewer believes that slavery in the United States as a form of involuntary labor and social control was inspired by feudal ideas of sovereignty and inheritance, that was enabled by the Stuart kings and English law. She argues that English feudalism was interwoven with capitalism to create an oligarchy of large landowners and slaves in Virginia, entrenched with liberalism.

Morgan begins his argument with an analysis of the ideology of the Virginian spokesmen for liberty in the United States, focussed particularly on Thomas Jefferson. He acknowledges the “hypocrisy” [1] of these Founding Fathers advocating freedom while owning slaves and disputes that these men symbolize the paradox of liberty and slavery. He uses Jefferson to explain how these men could have such an enigmatic position on slavery. He postulates that Jefferson’s ideas of independence depended on the basis of individual freedom.[2] By this definition of freedom, debtors and landless men were the biggest threat to a democratic republic. This distrust of artificers is where Morgan finds the limits of the eighteenth-century republican vision. This fear of the landless poor was a remnant of the unease England had with their own landless poor. The migration of “idleness” from England to the colonies[3] evolved into class tensions between wealthy landowners and landless freedmen. The fear of the freedmen and the danger that they posed to the colonies was later justified.[4] According to Morgan, this tension was the catalyst for the expansion of chattel slavery in the colonies. Slaves were viewed as the safer alternative to indentured servants because they had none of the expectations or constraints that could lead to malcontent.[5] This opened the gateway for Jefferson’s ideas of land distribution as an assurance of the republic. By this argument, this transition from servitude made slavery essential to the development of a democratic republic.

Brewer begins her argument with a criticism of historians’ approaches to John Locke and slavery, and how they were influenced by the political and economic liberalism of the Cold War. She believes that the traditional narrative of white equality at the expense of black inequality focuses on American exceptionalism and excludes conflicts and complexities.[6] She moves on to her stance that slavery actually emerged from the feudal hierarchy that tied people to property, perpetuated by the English empire and Stuart kings. Brewer breaks the issue of slavery into parts by focussing on how the laws and policies enabled it within the empire, who passed the laws, who profited from the policies, and how those policies were rationalized. She tackles the complexities of slavery by first giving the context for Locke’s ideologies and the policies of the English empire. She gives particular attention to the idea of divine right to rule and the colonial developments under the British crown.[7] She draws the connection between the restoration of hereditary monarchy that coincides with the laws of hereditary slavery in the colonies. She emphasizes the importance of the laws and policies that enabled slavery in the empire, and the benefits it had for the colonies. The Stuarts legitimizing traditional enslavement as a part of their absolutist vision, contested with Locke’s idea of slavery as temporary. The conflicts surrounding the Stuarts feudalist hereditary system sparked Locke’s ideas about life, liberty and the right to own property[8] and the Virginia Plan.[9] Although English common law was briefly turned against slavery during the 1690s on the basis of property hereditary slavery was already well established in the colonies. According to Brewer, the conflict over Locke’s plan demonstrates how slavery was influenced by power struggles in the empire and perpetuated by policies and laws.

Morgan offered a very focused and insular argument about the development of slavery in Virginia, while Brewer is more broad in her contextualization of slavery in the English empire. Brewer is more convincing in her analysis of the transformation and expansion of slavery because she builds off of previous arguments like Morgan’s. The transplantation of English policies and Locke’s ideologies into the colonies contradicts Morgans ideas that slavery was developed in a vacuum, independent from the policies and laws of the English empire is exceptionalist at best and too heavily influenced by the debates of the Cold War.

Morgan and Brewer both attempt to explain the transformation and expansion of slavery, by focussing on the relationship between politics, economics and social classes in Virginia, or on the policies and laws of the English empire. Morgan argues that slavery developed in a contradictory relationship to freedom as a solution to class tensions and economic differences. Brewer argues that the feudal system of hereditary inheritance tied to property created the tradition of slavery within the English Empire through laws and policies. Both offer unique insight into the relationship between slavery and governance, a bond that will influence the economic, social, and political future of colonial America.



[1] Edmund S. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” Journal of American History 59 (1972): 7.

[2] “…the citizens of a republic must free from the control of other men and that they could be free only if they were economically free by virtue of owning land on which to support themselves.” Morgan: 8.

[3] Morgan: 14,17.

[4] Morgan: 21-22.

[5] Morgan: 26.

[6] Holly Brewer, “Slavery, Sovereignty, and ‘Inheritable Blood’: Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery,” American Historical Review 122, no. 4 (Oct., 2017): 1040.

[7] Brewer: 1045-1048.

[8] “The most important principle of property was one’s ownership of one’s own life and liberty,” Brewer: 1057.

[9] Brewer: 1071-1072.

[10] Brewer: 1070-1071.


Dr. Hower’s Comments

HIS18-224-01: U.S.: Colonies to Nation

Short Essay #1

Grade: A-

This was really, really good. You’ve struck a nice balance between summary and analysis, and that really captures the key components of two complicated interpretations. While there were a few little issues in terms of execution, it is an impressive piece of work. Here are a few specific thoughts on the core components:


  • Thesis: In some ways, I thought the introduction was the weakest paragraph in the paper (which is more a testament to the quality of the rest than the shortcomings of the first!). You rightly highlight the big-picture context before pivoting to the two feature pieces, but I thought that you needed at least one more sentence really outlining an argument about how you see these two pieces fitting together. While a lot of what follows is quite good, it is never quite clear how we should understand their relationship. In some ways, the essay almost reads as parallel treatments of the two pieces. That makes sense as a structural choice (more on that below), but I think you want to give the reader some sense in the first and last paragraphs of how you think they should understand the two together. (After all, Brewer does take a few jabs at Morgan in the introduction).
  • Evidence: You really did an excellent job of balancing overviews of the two pieces with highlighting points of particular importance. There were a few tiny issues in the footnotes, but overall, this was very well done.
  • Organization: Aside from the previous comments about the introduction, there’s a lot to like here, though I wondered whether you’d have been better splitting the second paragraph and attaching it to the full treatments of Morgan and Brewer respectively? (Alternatively, I could see a case for trying to boil down that content and fold it into the introduction. As it stands now, it almost reads like a second intro – albeit a good one.) I also wish you’d also push just a little further in the final paragraph. Ideally, a conclusion only briefly restates (in sentence or less) the key argument from the introduction before pushing further / pulling back – in this case, perhaps to reflect on how we see slavery differently in the context of American history?
  • Style: Aside from the lack of a clear argument, this was the only other real area that could have been stronger – and I’m almost one hundred percent sure that the little errors and awkward phrases were a product of being rushed. I know I’m largely responsible for the heavy reading load, but try to save a little time to go back through and proofread. (For example, it doesn’t really make sense to refer to the United States prior to the Revolution, right? There were a few sentences that could have been tighter or combined to make stronger, compound sentences. Still very solid overall.



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