Monday, March 3, 2008

American Slavery American Freedom

Today, I am reading Edmund S. Morgan's seminal work, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.
Page 123:
But it is not unlikely that he had already transferred much of what he owned to his wife and children in order to circumvent the litigation that a substantial will often produced. It seems evident that while the Virginia Company was failing in London, a number of its officers in the colony were growing rich. In order to do so, they not only rendered less than faithful service to their employers; they also reduced other Virginians to a condition which, while short of slavery, was also some distance from the freedom that Englishmen liked to consider as their birthright.
Given how often this book is cited and how much I enjoy Morgan's writing style in general, I was expecting to enjoy this book, but so far, it isn't going so well. I just finished chapter 3, entitled "Idle Indian and Lazy Englishman." The central premise of this chapter was that everyone in the 17th century was just too damn lazy to feed themselves. The Native Americans were in a perpetual state of near-starvation because the men couldn't be bothered to lift a finger, except during the periodic wars that "relieved the Indians' habitual idleness" (57). The English weren't much better: according to Morgan, "England's listless laborers" and wasteful agricultural practices stifled economic growth.

The strange thing is, Morgan seems to contradict himself on these very points. Speaking of Native American men's responsibilities, he notes:
He could make canoes, weapons, and [fishing] weirs without losing his dignity, but the only other labor he ordinarily engaged in was clearing fields for planting . . .
Morgan goes on to discuss Native American men's labors as hunters, warriors, and housebuilders. I would also add some amount of childcare in the form of teaching young boys to perform adult male tasks, as well as the apparently not-work of diplomacy, religious leadership, and politics. Still, Morgan concludes that Native American men were habitually lazy and that "nearly every activity that could be designated as work at all was left to the women" (52). The above tasks excepted, I guess.

Again, the Englishmen fare little better (curiously, Morgan is all but mute on the subject of English women's work). Despite the fact that they engaged in "milking cows, hedging, ditching, thatching, and a hundred other tasks," the average English agricultural worker was basically a layabout. Morgan's point that many English laborers were underemployed because cereal crops do not require much attention after they are sown is well taken, but I still think he underestimates the average Englishman's day. Unless Edmund Morgan is willing to concede that reading and writing about events that happened 400 years ago is probably not vital to the nation's economy, he should probably refrain from calling a wood-chopping, cow-milking, field-planting, house-building, sheep-herding, rye-threshing, ox-driving, fence-building, ditch-digging, manure-spreading agricultural worker lazy.

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