Ep. 17: Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom

Ken Owen, Michael Hattem, and Roy Rogers revisit a classic work of early American history, Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. First published in 1975, Morgan’s book has stood the test of time, having won The Junto‘s first March Madness tournament in 2013. It continues to be assigned to both graduate students and undergraduates and remains a popular work with non-academic audiences as well.

Note: This extended episode is meant to give listeners a real sense of how historians discuss and engage with works of history. With a running time of 80 minutes, it is a very good approximation (in both content and depth) of a graduate seminar. 


American Slavery, American Freedom was published in 1975 and, in it, Morgan contended that the central paradox of American history was that the revolutionaries, who were so dedicated to liberty, maintained a system of labor that required the denial of liberty. How could a situation like that even come about? Morgan argued that American slavery and American freedom emerged in the same place at the same time in seventeenth-century colonial Virginia. Even more importantly, Morgan argued that the development of the two were inextricably linked and interdependent since the very beginning. To argue this, Morgan turned to the histories of class, politics, and culture to find the origins of race, racism, and liberty in America in the earliest decades of its settlement, in the end arguing that those origins had a profound effect on the American Revolution, the development of the Republic, and, in effect, the history of the United States down to the present day.


  • Why was Jamestown founded?
  • Why did it initially fail and what turned the colony’s fortunes around?
  • Why does Morgan describe Jamestown as a “boom town?”
  • Why did it take planters so long to switch from indentured servitude to slavery?
  • What sparked Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676?
  • How did the planters respond to Bacon’s Rebellion?
  • How did that response shape the colony’s subsequent development?
  • What is the relationship between Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 and the American Revolution in 1776?
  • Why has Morgan’s book remained so popular for so long?


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Billings, Warren M. “The Causes of Bacon’s Rebellion: Some Suggestions,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 78, no. 4 (1970): 409–435.

Bradburn, Douglas, and John C. Coombs. Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.

Breen, T. H. Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Breen, T. H., and Stephen Innes. Myne Owne Ground: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Carr, Lois Green and Lorena S. Walsh. “The Planter’s Wife: The Experience of White Women in Seventeenth-Century Maryland.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 34, no. 4 (1977): 542–571.

Clemens, Paul G. E. “Reimagining the Political Economy of Early Virginia.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 68, no. 3 (2011): 393–397.

Goetz, Rebecca Anne. The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

Holton, Woody. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

McDonnell, Michael A., and Woody Holton. “Patriot vs. Patriot: Social Conflict in Virginia and the Origins of the American Revolution.” Journal of American Studies 34, no. 2 (2000): 231–256.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975.

———. “The First American Boom: Virginia 1618 to 1630.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 28, no. 2 (1971): 169–198.

———. “Slavery and Freedom: the American Paradox.” The Journal of American History 59, no. 1 (1972): 5–29.

Parent, Anthony S. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Rice, James D. Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Schmidt, Ethan. The Divided Dominion: Social Conflict and Indian Hatred in Early Virginia. Denver: University of Colorado Press, 2014.

Shammas, Carole. “Black Women’s Work and the Evolution of Plantation Society in Virginia.” Labor History 26, no. 1 (1985): 5–28.

Thompson, Peter. “The Thief, the Householder, and the Commons: Languages of Class in Seventeenth-Century Virginia.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 63, no. 2 (2006): 253-80.

Walsh, Lorena S. From Calabar to Carter’s Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community. Charlottesville, Va: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia. New York: Norton, 1972.

Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676: The End of American Independence. New York: Knopf, 1984.


Slave Law in Colonial Virginia: A Timeline

“Papers relating to Bacon’s Rebellion,” 1676.

“The Declaration of the People, against Sr: Wm: Berkeley, and Present Governors of Virginia,” 1676.

“A List of Those That Have Been Executed For the Late Rebellion in Virginia,” by Sir William Berkeley, 1676.

“An Account of our Late Troubles in Virginia,” by Mrs. An. Cotton, 1676.

“A Narrative of the Indian and Civil Wars in Virginia, In the Years 1675 and 1676,” Date and Author Unknown.

“The Beginning, Progress, and Conclusion of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, In the Years 1675 and 1676,” by T.M., 1705.

Samuel Wiseman’s Book of Record: The Official Account of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, 1676-1677. Edited by Michael Leroy Oberg. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005.

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