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Saturday, June 22, 2013

American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan~★★★★★

Author: Edmund S. Morgan
Title: American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia
Release Date: Original release date was 1975; this edition released in 2003

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "In the American Revolution, Virginians were the most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality. George Washington led the Americans in battle against British oppression. Thomas Jefferson led them in declaring independence. Virginians drafted not only the Declaration but also the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; they were elected to the presidency of the United States under that Constitution for thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of its existence. They were all slaveholders. 
In the new preface Edmund S. Morgan writes: 'Human relations among us still suffer from the former enslavement of a large portion of our predecessors. The freedom of the free, the growth of freedom experienced in the American Revolution depended more than we like to admit on the enslavement of more than 20 percent of us at that time. How republican freedom came to be supported, at least in large part, by its opposite, slavery, is the subject of this book.' 
American Slavery, American Freedom is a study of the tragic contradiction at the core of America. Morgan finds the key to this central paradox, 'the marriage of slavery and freedom,' in the people and politics of the state that was both the birthplace of the Revolution and the largest slaveholding state in the country." 

Taryn's Review: This is one of those posts where I gush about a book that 95% of you will have no interest in reading, but let me say...I loved this book. Fellow American history lovers: read this book.

Morgan tackled a big subject: how did slavery arise and become accepted in a country that rallied around the idea of freedom and liberty while particular races were denied the opportunity to have freedom and liberty? It is a loaded question to ask, but Morgan answered the question with such articulation that, for me, reading the book was more of a pleasure than a chore. I loved how often he included primary source quotes into the text and, wow, did he pick some interesting ones! Early Virginians were some sharped-tongued people and their ability to use foul language in a quick-witted way was rather amusing to read. However, the penalties of breaking the law (or upsetting someone in power) could be immensely severe, too. The punishment handed down to a man who stole "two or three pints" of oatmeal was to have a needle put through his tongue and he was tied to a tree where he remained until he starved to death.

As Morgan interwove his text with colorful tales, he answered his own question. Now, you can't flip open this book and skim the words to find the answers; it is a book you have to read intently and not expect to finish up in a night. Each chapter holds part of the answer to the posed question. At times, it might feel as if Morgan has swayed from the topic, but you have to trust him. I highlighted the book as I read it and when I put the highlighted text together, Morgan's argument became very clear. Was it necessary to be as thorough and explanatory as Morgan was in his book? No, but the point of the book is to lay out the context as to why the "peculiar institution" arose in the United States...the land of the free. I could have a brief conversation with someone and summarize the main points of the book, but I can do so with such precision because of the detail and phenomenal effort that Morgan poured into his work.

This book could appeal to people with a wide range of interests. Obviously the issue of race the book discussed might be of interest to someone who's concerned with sociology; the history aspect will interest people who enjoy early American history; and people who have a fascination with economics might also be drawn to this book. It is a grand work, and it is a book I'm pleased to have on my personal bookshelf. The subject of the book is enormously complex, but Morgan's views on how slavery and racism came to be in America provided an origin to an issue that still plagues our nation today.

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