History of Slavery: Episode 1 transcript.

History of Slavery: Complete Episode 1 Transcript

History of Slavery: Complete Episode 1 Transcript

Our defining institution, in nine lives.
May 18 2015 7:23 PM

The Beginning of American Slavery: Episode 1 Transcript

Read a transcript of Episode 1 of The History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy.

Charges and net proceed of 118 new Negroe slaves.
"Charges and net proceed of 118 new Negroe slaves": bookkeeping entry from ledger of the firm of Austin & Laurens, Charleston, South Carolina, recording purchases and sales, and including accounts of sales of slaves, between 1754 and 1755.

Image courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

To listen to Episode 1, click here to visit the show page.

Jamelle Bouie: This is The History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy. My name is Jamelle Bouie; I am a Slate staff writer.  

Rebecca Onion: And my name is Rebecca Onion; I’m Slate’s history writer.


Bouie: In each episode we’re looking at a different chapter in the history of slavery in America, and starting the conversation with the life of a single person. This episode, we're talking about Anthony Johnson.

* * *

We don’t know where Anthony Johnson was born, or how he came to end up enslaved. We do know he arrived in Virginia in 1621, coming in on a ship called the James. His name was inscribed in the colony’s records as “Antonio, a Negro.” He survived an attack by Powhatan Indians in 1622, as the natives attacked many of Jamestown’s outlying settlements in an attempt to drive out the colonists.

In 1625 he was one of only about two dozen Africans in all of Virginia. He worked on a tobacco plantation owned by Edward Bennett, an absentee master who was a major investor in the Virginia Company. But Johnson’s life on that plantation was very different than what you might think of when you think of what slavery looks like. At least some of the men Johnson worked with were white Europeans who had financed their emigration by entering contracts of indentured servitude—which was a common practice at the time.


Johnson’s master permitted Johnson to wed his wife Mary, described in colony records as “a Negro Woman.” Anthony and Mary were allowed to farm independently while still enslaved, and eventually to buy their freedom with proceeds from their labor, which happened sometime before 1647.

Then Anthony Johnson bought a farm near the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula through the Virginia Colony’s headright system. That meant that in exchange for a land grant of 250 acres, Johnson financed the indenture and immigration of five men. Upon arriving in Virginia, these men became Johnson’s indentured property. In 1653, when John Casor, one of the Johnson family’s enslaved laborers, escaped to a neighboring plantation, Johnson contested Casor’s claim that his indenture was over. He sued for Casor’s return, arguing that John Casor was his slave for life. Johnson won his case.

This wasn’t the Johnson family’s only recognition from the local court system. By the 1650s, Anthony’s two sons owned large farms adjoining their parents’ land, of 550 and 100 acres. The Johnson children fought—and won!—land disputes with white neighbors. And when Anthony suffered the effects of a disastrous fire in 1653, he asked for tax relief from the county court. In his petition he reminded the court of him and his wife’s status in the community, writing, in the third person, “Their hard labors and knowne services for obtayneing their livelihood were well known.” The court agreed; Johnson received the tax relief he was looking for. By the standards of the time, Johnson and his family were wealthy and influential.

But times were changing. Indentured servitude was transforming into slavery as we think of it today: hereditary and race-based. When Anthony Johnson died in 1670, a white planter successfully challenged his will, which left 50 acres of property in Accomack County to his son Richard—because Johnson was a Negro, and by consequence, an alien.


* * *

Bouie: In today’s episode we’re talking about the shape of slavery at the very beginning, in the northern and southern colonies that would later become the United States. Later in the episode, we’ll be trying to understand the political, economic, and cultural changes that brought hereditary race slavery to the colonies.

But first, let’s talk a little more about Anthony Johnson. I’ve done some reading about 17th-century Virginia, and the name sounds familiar, and I feel like I had read about him. But I didn’t quite realize just how prosperous he was.

Onion: Yes, he was both prosperous and very active in public life, or at least insofar as we can tell through court records. He and his family conducted their affairs much like any other sort of extended family of Virginia colonists who had managed to some degree thrive in this new place.


Bouie: Right.

Onion: And so, you know, you have all of these court records of him and his family, in disputes with their neighbors, or buying new bits of land, or moving. And, it reads like they’re a white family.

Bouie: Right.

Onion: Pretty much.


Bouie: And so what about the Johnson story is so relevant to the development of slavery in the United States—and race slavery in the colonies?

Onion: Well, just the very fact that he existed and was able to do what he did, in the middle of the 17th century. And that by the time it was, you know, 70 years later, that would not have been possible.

Bouie: Right.

Onion: Which is kind of a remarkable thing to think about.

Bouie: Right. That in the span of—really in the span of a single lifetime—you could have African families be powerful landowners, or at least, like, well-to-do landowners, and then at the end of that period, virtually no one like that exists throughout the colonies.

Onion: Yes, it becomes very hard to find an example of a similar kind of family in the 18th century.

Bouie: Right.

Onion: Yeah.

Bouie: So one of the most interesting things about Johnson, obviously, is that he was an African who owned African slaves.  

It really shows the extent to which the institution of slavery is much less static than it appears.

So, you know, the fact that Johnson could live through two phases helps us, like, see how things really do shift in the institution from generation to generation.

Onion: Yeah, and that’s something that I didn’t think about as much before starting this project, because I think that there is, you know, within the public conversation about the history of slavery, the time that gets talked about a lot is maybe 1810 through 1860.

Bouie: Right.

Onion: Which is when people were picking cotton, and when there were big plantations in the South.

So, a scholar that we speak with later on in this episode, Ira Berlin, has this sort of scheme of how to understand the history of slavery in the northern colonies and in the United States. And he calls it the generations.

And so, the generations that Anthony Johnson belonged to is what Ira calls the charter generation, which is the first group of people who experience slavery in the 17th-century colonies, you know, it wasn’t hereditary through the mother. So, there was just a little bit more fluidity to it.

Bouie: It looked a little bit more like slavery had looked in other societies in the past.

Onion: Yes. Exactly. And so, and this charter generation is, ah, you know, a 17th-century-, early-18th-century phenomenon. And then the next generation, what Ira calls the plantation generation, lived through a time when in the system it was much more difficult to find ways to leave.

Bouie: Exactly. And a lot of what we’re going to talk about today is exactly that transition, from this informal system to a race-based, hereditary slavery that I think more people are familiar with.

But first, after a break, we’re going to talk more about slavery in the colonies during Anthony Johnson’s time.

* * *

Bouie: Welcome back.

When we left we were talking about Anthony Johnson’s Virginia, where a few Africans, like himself, owned slaves.

Onion: Yes. And I think that is kind of hard for us to look back at and understand—a much more, sort of complicated, less totalistic system in some way.

So, I spoke with Ira Berlin, whom I mentioned earlier, who is a very august scholar, teaches at the University of Maryland at College Park. And he’s written a ton of books about slavery, but the ones that I like a lot, that are sort of helpful for me to understand, you know, things like this, are the ones that are written on a broad, synthetic scale. Um, so he wrote one called Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.

And, one of the concepts he introduces is a helpful concept when it comes to understanding how a place like Virginia might compare to other forms of slavery that existed earlier in human history, at the same time in other places, and later on in the United States.

So, Ira spoke to us about his idea of the difference between a society with slaves and a slave society.

Ira Berlin: This notion of a society with slaves—meaning a society in which slavery exists, that is, men and women are owned, but to allow slaves to have a modicum of control over their own lives. That is, to trade independently on their own lives, to have an independent religious life, often to have an independent family life as well.

The reason why slaveholders allowed slaves to have an independent control over their lives in what we call a “society with slaves” is that it’s dangerous to push men and women to the brink. There’s no telling when a slave might decide: This is just not worth it. Ah, you’re going to push on me, and I’m going to push back on you, and you may get me, but I’ll get you—I’ll get you as well. And slaveholders don’t want to be in that position.

Onion: So another question that I asked Ira had to do with the national origins of colonizers, and the way that they set up the institution of slavery in their colonies.

And so I was sort of hypothesizing that the difference between being enslaved in an English colony and a Dutch colony and a Spanish colony might have to do with the national idea of slavery in those places.

Although that might have some influence, what he thought was that the difference between the way that slavery operated in the different places had more to do with the way the economy was structured.

Bouie: Right.

Onion: So, he thought that the telling difference between a society that has slaves in it and a slave society is that when there comes to be a commodity that’s very profitable, like sugar, later tobacco in Virginia—

Bouie: Eventually cotton.

Onion: —eventually cotton, and there are people who just want to get all the profit out of it they can, that is when there is a strong profit motive to have a slave society.

Bouie: Right. And it’s worth getting a bit more into, I think, the social distinctions between a slave society and a society with slaves.

Onion: Mm-hmm.

Bouie: One way you can think of a society with slaves is think of ancient Rome, where there are slaves, and there are many of them, but there existed some form of mobility for slaves. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t perfect, but being born a slave didn’t necessarily mean that your great-great-grandchildren would also be slaves.

And as well, Roman society wasn’t necessarily centered on slavery. That there were—there were other economic and social bases for the structure of Roman society.

In a slave society, it’s basically the opposite. Slavery is just the, the overwhelming institution that shapes not just economic life, but social life—all sorts of norms and practices, and things that we sort of, like, associate with a civil society.  

Onion: And that in a slave society there is an ideology related to slavery, that there is a strong belief that it is the right thing to do—

Bouie: Exactly.

Onion: —and that you see, you know, maybe less early on in the charter generation and the plantation generations, but in the migration generation in the states that becomes very strong in the South, this conviction, you know—We have a slave society, and it’s right.

Bouie: And we’ll talk about this later in the podcast, but there emerge thinkers in the South who explicitly argue, without reservations, that a slave society is the only proper and decent way to organize a slave society.

Onion: Yes. Exactly. There’s a couple other distinctions that a slave society has, which is that quite often, in those societies there are people who own a lot of slaves at once.

Bouie: Right.

Onion: So, in New York, as there were slaves in New York City for a really long time—as we’ll discuss later on—it wasn’t like a plantation where you owned hundreds. There was, you know, a few in a household. So it was also, although not always 100 percent the case, it’s also sort of easy to say that if you had slavery in an urban location, where the economy is diversified—

Bouie: Yes.

Onion: —um, people aren’t just doing, producing one crop. You know, enslaved people might be working trades.

Bouie: There are multiple sources of low-cost labor.

Onion: Yes, there are multiple sources. So there are a number of people who are not slaves but are in, you know, bound labor situations. Indenture, or apprenticeship, which is also the case in Jamestown—

Bouie: Right.

Onion: —where early on, it’s not just that there are people who are slaves, there are also indentured servants. So this is a society with slaves.

Bouie: And to go back to Anthony Johnson, this is all to say that part of the reason why his story was possible, and why his life was possible, was that Virginia in the 17th century, or at least through the first three-quarters of the 17th century, wasn’t a slave society. It was a place where people owned slaves.

And that, I call it flexibility—obviously slavery is bad [laughter]—slavery in all its forms is bad, but there are gradations of badness here, and Virginia in the 17th century was not as bad as it would later become—

Onion: Right.

Bouie: —and that gave a certain amount of freedom to people like Anthony Johnson.

Onion: And there are a couple other examples of people who in the 17th century, who also, like Anthony Johnson, managed to not only make it out, but become in some degree influential.

And that is something that is sort of a characteristic of this charter generation.

Ira Berlin: You know, Anthony Johnson is not, you know, simply a unicorn. He’s not simply, you know, one of a kind in this society. But there are many people like him. I doubt whether they are a majority of the population at any time—although they well might be in some places—but I would say their importance is that they set the tone for that society. And if you see, a black man coming into court or walking down the streets of Jamestown or Williamsburg, you can’t presume that this guy is a slave.

And they exist in such numbers that they force people to think differently about the question of slavery and the question of race.

That's a lot different than it is on a plantation in Alabama, in, you know, in 1830.

Bouie: So we know that slavery in the 17th century wasn’t a pervasive system, it didn’t sort of govern the lives of everyone who happened to have black skin.

Sort of my question, and the thing I frankly never learned ever, was how we got from that point, when slavery was part of colonial society but not a dominant force in colonial society, to just a couple decades after Johnson’s death, when slavery was more in the kind, the form that we would recognize as Americans today.

Onion: I would say my short answer is: greed.

* * *

Onion: So when we were planning this series, one of the producers for Slate podcasts asked me, he asked this question, “What changed to make there be slavery in the American colonies?” Ha.

And I didn’t know how to answer that question. And—which was one of the reasons we thought this series would be interesting to do.

Bouie: So thank you to that producer.

Onion: Yeah, totally. Thank you, Mike Vuolo! Shout-out.

Um, but so, you know, I’m still—in doing research for this, I’m still sort of wondering what happened in the southern colonies in the, in the late 17th century, early 18th century, to make it, to make the transition between a sort of charter generation model, to this hereditary, race-based slavery.

Bouie: So did you find any leads on that end?

Onion: Ha. Yeah. So ah, you know, we called and spoke to Peter Wood, who is an emeritus professor from Duke.

And, interestingly, he wrote a book called Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina From 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion, which was a book way back in 1974. And Dr. Wood was one of the first people to make the, to make point that rice planters in South Carolina learned how to plant from the enslaved people from Africa who worked with them.

Bouie: Yeah, that they weren’t, you know, unskilled labors. And this makes sense, they were taken from their homes and they had skills that they could put to use, uh, here in their new home. Weird way to put it, but that’s the best available word I have at the moment.

Onion: Ha. Yes, you can say environment, maybe.

Bouie: Yes. The new environment. Ha.

Onion: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. This idea that there was a contribution to the colonial economy that is sort of multifaceted and layered in this way.

He writes, very specifically, about this transition from a more, um, sort of diverse model of a society with slaves and this more hereditary, race-based system that came later. So that can be found in his book Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America.

Peter Wood: By the 18th century, you really have chattel slavery where these people are legally being treated as property. But how we get there is a complicated story that most Americans don’t think about.

Because we tend to think about slavery as being a deep, dark past and then getting better. So, if it’s on a graph, it’s nothing but a slow upward climb through emancipation, and Jim Crow, and eventually getting up to the Voting Rights Act or something, you know. It’s all one way and moving upward; that’s the way Americans like to tell even bad stories like this.

But, in fact, the graph is really a big U-curve. You know—that it doesn’t start that low. It starts up at a system of relative equality in racial terms.

In the first half of the 17th century, you know, you really do have people from Africa and people from Europe intermingling and working on the frontier. You know, one of the images I found, actually, in early South Carolina was a white guy and a black guy working on opposite ends of the same handsaw, you know. There’s not much social distance.

But that all changes, you know. So, this terrible transformation is the downward part of the curve. How did these different little colonial cultures slide into this terrible abyss of race slavery that we’ve been digging our way out, of or climbing our way out of, for 200 years?

Bouie: So, where does that transition point start? For our listeners, I think it’d be really helpful just to sort of hear how we move from nonracial slavery to this very particular racial slavery.

Does it happen in, like, the late 17th century? Is it earlier than that? Is it a bit later than that?

Wood: It happens at different times in different places, but, generally speaking, it’s the second half of the 17th century, say, from 1650 to 1700—you know, that course of a couple of generations. There were some signs of it before that. There will be some lingering uncertainties after 1700.

But it’s in that second half of the 17th century that it all happens, and that’s a very unfamiliar period of American history—even for American historians.

Bouie: The idea that these changes were happening really slowly I think is really fascinating. Professor Wood referred to it as sort of like climate change, that you don’t entirely notice that it’s happening but it is happening. And then once it’s happened, you definitely notice.

Onion: Yeah, he said it was like climate change or the change of seasons.

If you think about the way it is in spring, where one day it’s warm and you’re like, “Yeah, it’s spring!” and then the next day it snows, and then the next day it’s a little warmer, and you have a sense that you’re moving toward spring but you can’t really feel it.

Bouie: Right.

Onion: And then finally you’re in May and it’s 80 degrees every day, and you think, “Oh, OK, it’s spring.”

Bouie: Yes.

Onion: So, you know—

Bouie: And then you’re in the summer and it’s 95 degrees every day and you’re like, “This is just how it’s always been.”

Onion: Yeah! So this is a good metaphor for that reason.

You know, you might be an enslaved person in, ah, in Virginia or you might be an enslaved person in South Carolina, you might have a different perspective on how these changes are happening. You know, you might be in a different social position and have a different perspective. But Peter makes the point that by the end of the 17th century, everybody knows—it’s summer.

Bouie: And so one of the things he says is driving this shift toward racial slavery, uh, is just the change in labor supply. That there suddenly becomes a need for more laborers. And Africans kind of emerged to fill that need. 

Wood: If you go back to the middle of the 17th century, you have these small colonies needing to add people and provide labor. That’s just built into the colonization process is that you want more people there to do more work, whether it’s cutting down trees, or plowing fields, or doing whatever that colony is doing.

So, if it’s an English colony, as these were in North America, then the thought is to bring more—more Englishmen, you know. But the availability of colonists from England dries up. You know, there’s a huge plague in London in the 1660s. There’s the Great Fire of London that burns half the city, which creates all kinds of new jobs for people who had been unemployed before. So, there’s no excess labor.

They even start grabbing children off the streets, and sending them across the ocean as labor. That’s where our word kidnapping comes from. So, all of a sudden, it’s getting harder and harder in England to find people who are willing to go to the colonies.

They also try employing or—and/or—enslaving Indians, but that has all sorts of problems connected with it: Partly, the native population is decreasing through disease and warfare; partly, Native Americans are living in their home country, and can escape more easily, run back to their own villages and communities.

So, the third possible source of labor is people from Africa. And the enslavement of African people has been going on in the Caribbean and in Brazil for—and in Mexico and Central America—for quite some time. So, that’s a precedent that’s also a labor stream that exists. You know, slave ships are bringing people to the Caribbean. It’s a question of whether you, in Philadelphia or Charleston, want to send your ship down to the Caribbean.­­­­

And, at first, you can’t. If your colony is so small—suppose you have a tiny little village on Chesapeake Bay—if a huge transatlantic slave ship showed up with 300 people, there wouldn’t be enough capital in that community to buy them, even if there were enough people who thought that was a good investment and not a perverse operation. There simply wasn’t the capital.

But that, too, is going to change, so that by the 1670s, 1680s, there are more and more people with money to invest in labor.

And one of the other things that’s changing at the same time is that, actually, living conditions are improving.

In the early 17th century, life expectancy—especially in the southern colonies, which were very malaria-prone—um, life expectancy was very low. If you were hiring somebody or renting somebody, or buying somebody’s labor for a few years, you didn’t want to make a big investment in 20 years of labor, because that person might only live for three years.

And then there’s the whole cultural argument—that if you’re an English-speaking Christian, you’d probably rather have an English-speaking Christian as your workforce on your small farm. But as your ambitions grow, then you may change your views.

Bouie: And so at first, it makes total sense, if you are a, uh, newly arrived landowner, if you’re an elite in Virginia, to want an English-speaking workers. You know, you understand each other, you can communicate, you’re in this really tough environment together. So, having those lines open just makes life a little easier.

But, you know, eventually the colony—it starts working out. People start making money—lots of money, hand-over-fist money. People start accumulating land. Those servants, that you thought were only going to live for a couple of years? Well, now they’re surviving their terms of indentured servitude—

Onion: Darn them. Ha.

Bouie: Ha. And they’re trying to farm for themselves, they’re trying to make money, they’re trying to compete, they’re trying to get land. And while we think, you know, of the Virginia colony and sort of the early colonies as this vast expanse, in a lot of ways they were really geographically quite limited: You move too far in one direction and all of a sudden you’ve sparked a war with nearby tribes.

Onion: Right.

Bouie: And so, the supply of available land felt much smaller than it was. And you add all of those together and it does begin to seem like this whole English worker thing isn’t the best deal in the world—especially if you’re a wealthy elite.

Onion: Yes. All of these sort, you know sort of small annoyances actually blossomed into open conflict at various points during the middle of the 17th century.

Bouie: Right. You have minor examples of conflict and insurrection from the white working class of the Virginia colony, but eventually it does blossom, ah, like you said, Rebecca, into something quite serious, like Bacon’s Rebellion.

Wood: By the 1670s and ’80s, the planters, let’s say, in Virginia and Maryland are becoming so rich, and they’re treating their workers so poorly that there’s a huge gap between them.

Servants are running away at a great rate. Some of them are going to live with the Indians. Some are escaping down into North Carolina, where they can live more readily.

And some of them are fighting back. You know, there are strikes among the tobacco pickers.

This is a workforce that’s both black and white—you know, African and European, and mixtures in between—but all poorly paid, all being forced to work in horrendous conditions. And they resist.

There’s a famous incident in the 1670s in Virginia known as Bacon’s Rebellion, where—which starts out as a fight among the elites over who’s going to have the most control, but it quickly turns into a, almost a class war—that blacks and whites who are working in the tobacco fields join together, and become part of this movement.

It becomes almost a turning point for the Virginia gentry—that they realize they’re very much outnumbered by this very poor, mixed-race working class. And it’s really at that point that the idea of divide-and-conquer, and of pitting black workers against white workers, really comes into the American vocabulary, and lives happily for hundreds of years—

Onion: I was going to say, we’ve still got that, yeah.

Wood: Absolutely, absolutely. And it was a real conscious effort—and part of this terrible transformation that, OK, we will split the working class, and we will provide certain minor favors for the white members and disadvantages for the black members.

Bouie: So, I think the common understanding among the public is that African slavery happened because of racism, but what you seem to be describing is the opposite, right—that racism happened, or people developed ideas that we would eventually call racism, in part to justify enslaving Africans.

Wood: Yes, this transition in the late 17th century is primarily a transition from seeing people in terms of their religion to seeing people in terms of their race.

In 1600 the earliest colonists saw themselves as Christians. They saw the Indians as non-Christians. They saw the Africans as non-Christians. They were heathens. The English didn’t refer to themselves as white; they referred to themselves as Christian.

But the problem there is that, for a Chesapeake employer who says, you know, “I’m enslaving you because you’re a heathen,” you would very quickly say, “Well, suppose I convert to Christianity. Then I’m off the hook, right?”

Onion: Yeah, what then?

Wood: I mean, it’s a no-brainer, as we would say.

And they realized that. And many of them are devout Christians. The planters themselves see that that’s a dilemma.

In other words, if you’re enslaved because of your religion, you can change your religion. OK, how could we make this more permanent? Well, maybe we’re going to enslave you because of the way you look—and that’s not something you can change.

It’s really, in this period, in the late 17th century, that that shift takes place. Europeans start calling themselves white, and they start referring to slaves as black. You’re enslaved not because you’re a heathen but because you’re black in appearance.

Bouie: So one thing I’m curious about, Rebecca, is who is making these laws? Who are the people in, and I guess at this point in Virginia it would be in the House of Burgesses, who are making these decisions?

Onion: You could sort of guess that the people who are making these decisions are the elites, like the people who have a lot of money and a lot of land.

But what was interesting to me about Peter’s response to our questions about the lawmakers was his reminder that a lot of the people who have a bunch of money and power in the southern colonies at this point are people who have gained tremendous advantage from the restoration of the English King, Charles II, who, when he was restored, gave tracts of land, and sort of controlling interests to people who run the Royal African Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, these sort of big entities that are making a bunch of money out of the colonies.

So, in the middle of the 17th century, there’s, like, this infusion of people who expect to make a lot of money, out of Virginia and Carolina.

Bouie: Right.

Onion: Yeah.

Bouie: They expect to make a lot of money, and when it becomes clear that there are a lot of obstacles to that, they—they take steps to, you know, to try to do something about it.

Onion: Yes. And that’s where these—this sort of cascade of new laws about slavery comes from.

Bouie: One thing I was interested about was resistance to this.

Because, you know, if there was this growing group of landowners and small farmers who were white and who were black, and, um, who were affected by these sort of laws. And the kind of laws we’re talking about are laws forbidding interracial marriage, laws imposing harsher penalties on black indentured servants than white ones. And it seems like you would have some kind of resistance.

And we talked to Peter about that.

Onion: You’ll hear Peter refer to the term leveler to describe some of the people who resisted racial slavery in the Virginia colony. That’s a word that refers to a faction, in England, during that period of civil wars, so right before the restoration, people who advocated for, as you might able to infer from the name, not quite democratic but, uh, a distribution of power toward the House of Commons and suffrage for more people, and all kinds of liberalizing reforms.   

Wood: One of the things we’re slowly learning is that there was plenty of resistance to this idea of racial enslavement, even as it begins to emerge. You know, we often think of it as being something that appears only beginning in the 18th century and growing in the 19th century—you know, a few Quaker abolitionists before the American Revolution.

But, in fact, the Quakers are out of that leveler tradition. They come out of the English Revolution.

We’ve just figured out—a wonderful historian in Ohio is working on this right now—but Anthony Johnson, whom you’ve read about and been talking about, we never quite knew why he moved north to Somerset County, Maryland, there on the Eastern Shore. You know, at a certain point, he pulls up stakes and moves with his whole family. Well, it now turns out that he’s involved with these Quaker/leveler/anti-monarchical groups that were looking for a place to get out from under the thumb of these big guns who are making life—

Onion: Wow. How did—

Wood: Yeah, it’s fascinating.

This is a wonderful student of mine, named Noeleen McIlvenna, who’s working on a book now about this group of people.

And Johnson shows up there. I mean, he actually—when he moves north, he’s leasing land, he’s leasing it from a guy named Stephen Horsey, who is a Quaker, and who is a leader of this dissident group that’s been marginalized in Virginia, pushed out of Northampton County. And they settle—if you look at Somerset County, I mean, they were right on the edge between Maryland and Virginia. They were in this kind of no-man’s land, and that’s what they wanted, was someplace where they could operate.

Bouie: Part of the story in the Virginia Colony, we’ve alluded to this, is how law and culture interact with each other, drive each other, inform each other.

In Virginia what you see is the imperative of economic life in the colony driving law, this law influencing the culture, and the gradual change of the culture in turn driving other laws. They kind of build on each other.

And so, you know, the best example of this, for this period, and we referenced it earlier, was the laws against things like interracial marriage, and the law sort of explicitly making blacks a different class of servant and person than whites in the colony.

Onion: Yes, and we’ll put a timeline of some of those changes in codes in our show page. It’s really interesting to see how it moves forward in these ways, sort of little laws and little changes that all add up.

I’m looking at the timeline now: 1667, Virginia declares Christian baptism will not alter a person’s status as a slave; 1668, New Jersey passes a fugitive slave law; 1670, in Virginia, free blacks and Indians can no longer keep Christian or white servants.

So these strictures are put on black people at different times in different colonies, but it’s sort of like this cascade of little regulations.

Wood: It is gradual, and it can be things like whether you’re allowed to testify in court, whether you’re allowed to marry someone of a different color, all this.

But the key transition in all the different laws, I think—the really key one has to do with heredity—inheriting your slave status.

If you have a group of indentured servants who are all serving five, 10 years or something, and if some of them are from Africa, there’s no reason not to extend that person’s service—because for the Europeans, there’s what I call the feedback loop. You know, there’s word going back to Europe that says, “I’m being badly treated here. You shouldn’t come here; you should go to New Jersey instead,” something like that. “My indenture’s too long,” “The climate is terrible,” whatever.

In the African laborer, there’s no feedback system. There aren’t letters going back. There aren’t sailors transmitting messages. If I’m an African, and you extend my service, I have no recourse.

And so you get this growing phenomenon in the middle of the 17th century of Africans serving longer terms and even life terms, right? But it’s still not hereditary.

So, the real shift is then, if you can enslave someone and also own the next generation—that’s the goose that laid the golden egg.

But, in order to get to that point, you have to change English law, because English law says that you inherit the status of your father.

So that means that if there’s a white father and a black mother, that should make the son or daughter free. And that was true in the first half of the 17th century. They say, “Wait a minute. Here, in this colony”—being Virginia, and then the others picked this up, too—“you’re going to inherit the status of your mother. So, if your mother is a slave, then the child is a slave as well.”

And that’s the beginning of hereditary race slavery—you know, of passing it on from generation to generation. And that’s a real shift, even in the whole notion of enslavement.

I mean, in slavery in Africa—there was plenty of slavery in Africa, but it wasn’t hereditary and passed on. You could marry into a new group, and your children would have different lives. That all gets canceled out.

So that appears in the 1660s, and then spreads—this idea that slavery can be passed on.

And, of course, from the owners’ point of view, it’s suddenly a bonanza, you know, because if you can manage to raise up this next generation of children when they’re not yet productive labor—but then, pretty soon, there they are, and you haven’t even had to pay for them.

Bouie: You know, one of the things I really enjoyed about talking to Peter is it’s a reminder that things aren’t inevitable.

The fact that we can trace a progression, we can see laws change, we can see attitudes change, we can identify people driving them, we can identify people resisting them—I think really throws a wrench into what is an unfortunate tendency to believe about the period, that race slavery was just kind of inevitable, it was going to happen anyway, that it’s just human nature that this happened.

And it really, it really isn’t at all.

Onion: Of course, things are complicated and there are many factors, and there’s different people being influenced by these many factors, but we can tease it out. We have that ability.

Bouie: Right. The status quo we got wasn’t inevitable.

Onion: Yeah.

Bouie: And some people might see that as depressing, that we got one of the worst of the possible worlds, but I see it as a bit heartening in that there is, you know, people resist and sometimes resistance works.

Onion: Jamelle, you’re a glass-half-full kind of guy.

Bouie: Ha. I really am.

Yeah. I guess I am, turns out. So, you know, with this segment done—where are we going next, Rebecca?

Onion: So in the next episode, we’ll be talking about slavery in the 18th century, and in particular the development of slavery in the Atlantic world, through the life of a really unusual person, Olaudah Equiano.

Bouie: That’s right. And in his life we’ll see the emergence and development of the British anti-slavery movement, and we’ll get a better sense of what it was actually like to be a slave during the period when racial slavery was the norm.

Until then, though, I’m Jamelle Bouie.

Onion: And I’m Rebecca Onion.

Bouie: And this is The History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy. We’ll see you soon.