America’s Capitalism Has Embraced White Slaves as Well as Black

JAMESTOWN: CONVICT WIVES.  A female convict, transported from an English prison to Jamestown, Virginia, as an indentured servant, sold for a wife to a male settler for 100 pounds of tobacco. Wood engraving, 19th century.
JAMESTOWN: CONVICT WIVES.
A female convict, transported from an English prison to Jamestown, Virginia, as an indentured servant, sold for a wife to a male settler for 100 pounds of tobacco. Wood engraving, 19th century.

Sarah Jones wrote yesterday about Victoria Secret model Cameron Russell and white privilege. This is a significant issue because the Republican Party’s entire political orientation is as much about imposing heterodoxy in religion as it is in gender and, especially, ethnicity. White privilege is as old as the United States (and older) after all, and its impending loss has shattered the heart of conservative thinking.

All their thought is bent upon it, as Gandalf once said about the ring of the dark lord Sauron. And like Sauron, they will stop at nothing to get it back. Without white privilege, they cannot bind all the pluralistic threads of America into a nation ruled by white male Evangelicals – a reproduction of the nation they imagine once existed before that nasty revolution ruined everything for the rich white guys who owned other guys, gals, and kids.

And this white privilege goes beyond mere color to include socioeconomic status. A little known fact about Colonial America relates to how white privilege also created a class of white slaves: indentured servants as they were called. Indentured servitude was a cruel institution, one that originated on these shores in Virginia in 1620. It was not abolished until 1917 and “continued to exist in mainland North America at least until the fourth decade of the nineteenth century.”[1]

As one author put it, “For the first two centuries of the history of British North America, one word best characterizes the status of the vast majority of immigrants – servitude.” He goes on to say that “from the founding of Jamestown until the Revolution, nearly three-fourths of all immigrants to the thirteen colonies arrived in some condition of unfreedom.”[2] These days we tend to associate America with freedom, but that was far from the case. As Aaron S. Fogleman writes, “Before 1776, for most arrivals, coming to America meant a curtailment of freedom.”[3]

The Revolution meant freedom, first and foremost, to wealthy landowners, and also to merchants, craftsmen, and shopkeepers. Only grudgingly has it meant freedom for others.

And when we think about unfreedom, we generally think about black slavery, America’s “peculiar institution.” But in our history books as in our imaginations, indentured servitude gets short shrift, as do the economic underpinnings of both types of servitude. The economics still work against freedom, with some modern innovations. If the original tea party, cheered on by merchants, dumped British tea into Boston Harbor, the modern version, funded by rich corporations, throws American rights – your rights - under the bus. The result is that while corporations become people, people do not.

Everyone has heard about Australia and its convicts, but the same is true of America. Author Kevin Philips, in his book 1775 (2012) points out that Dr. Samuel Johnson, “a high Tory, famously called Americas ‘a race of convicts.'” According to Philips, some 50,000 British convicts were transported to America, but “during the first three quarters of the eighteenth century, roughly 307,400 white immigrants arrived in the thirteen colonies.” Just 49.3 percent of these were free. A staggering 33.7 percent were indentured servants.[4] George Washington owned twelve white people, along with his black slaves. He was worried about both running off to the British.[5] In Philadelphia, where Thomas Jefferson and others talked about the inalienable rights of man, an indentured servant market thrived.[6]

What was indentured servitude like? Bad. “Indentured servants were rarely well treated. They could go to court in most colonies, but sometimes their effort only wound up extending the term of their indenture.” Philips cites author Gordon S. Wood:”in the colonies, servitude was a much harsher, more brutal and more humiliating status than it was in England.” One British officer, Phillips relates, estimated that half of convict servants were dead within seven years.  In Virginia, there was no real distinction between how convicts and indentured servants were treated. “In practical terms,” we are told, “purchasers often treated white indentured servants and convicts more or less similarly.”[7] It was bad enough for adults, but children could be indentured for periods of 15 years and kidnapping children was not a felony in England until 1814.[8] Thus some of the early settlers of the New World were children stolen from their parents in the Old.[9]

As one scholar has observed, “the English Government allowed the crime of kidnapping to flourish without serious restraint”[10]

indentured_servant_saleIndentured servants were essentially slaves for the duration of their terms of servitude and could be bought and sold at their “owner’s” whim.[11] Their sale has been compared to that of horses and cows at a market or fair.[12] One scholar notes “a newspaper advertisement for ‘an estate to be sold in the province of Maryland’ in 1660 which described it as ‘stocked with servants, cattle, horses, and mares, sheep and swine.”[13]

The legal status of indentured servants in the colonies was “chattel” – literally property. [14] “Servants could be bought and sold and this was not just the transfer of labour rights but of alienable property.”[15] As Phillips relates, “even their unexpired terms were property, willable to heirs” and “this definition persisted during the Revolution, because most courts tried to keep a ‘property’ label on enlisted servants, to uphold owners’ rights to reimbursement for loss of service.”[16]

Indentured servitude has been called “proto-slavery”[17] and a form of feudalism.[18] “Ironically,” says Phillips, “black slaves, selling for roughly three times as much, often got better treatment because they were a lifetime investment. With indentured servants, an employer’s optimal return lay in obtaining as much sweat and output as possible over four, five, or seven years.”[19]

None of this downplays the reality or cruelty of black slavery. It is, rather, another example of privileged attitudes that reduce classes of people, whether based on skin color, socioeconomic status, gender, or sexual preference, to second-class status. We can’t even add “citizen” since they lacked the right to own property or to vote.  Government run by the rich, who lack no concern for the welfare of those beneath them, is never to be desired.

Though today we focus mostly on slavery, it is forgotten that in the early days of colonial America, it was indentured servants who provided the needed agriculture labor, only to be replaced later by black slaves. “This transition from servants to slaves…occurred at different times in these regions [West Indies, the Chesapeake, South Carolina, and Georgia], and at different rates.”[20]

There is every reason to believe that modern conservatism is not greatly disturbed by the idea of returning to a master/servant paradigm, which, after all, has its English roots in economic disparity. The abolition rather than the broadening of rights is everywhere in evidence in right-wing rhetoric. Hand in hand with the shrinking Republican tent is a shrinking concept of equality and rights. These are accompanied by a corresponding shrinkage of white numbers as a percentage of the population.

In the end, we would see a return to debtor’s prisons and pre-Revolution social conditions with a broad underclass ruled by a predominantly white Christian upper-class. Women would lose the voting franchise (along with their reproductive rights) and would be beat on a whim by any male; children would be put back to work, and immigrants would be laborers, slaving nearly without rights for their white masters in a sort of American apartheid. The Republican dream would undo the very liberal American Revolution, which was never the dream of conservatives in the first place. It is no wonder they hate the Constitution, the Revolution’s shining symbol, so very much.

 Image from: immigrationmuseum.wikispaces.com


[1] David W. Galenson, “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis. The Journal of Economic History 44 (1984), 1-26.

[2] Aaron S. Fogleman, “From Slaves, Convicts, and Servants to Free Passengers: The Transformation of Immigration in the Era of the American Revolution.” The Journal of American History 85 (1998), 43-76.

[3] Fogleman (1998), 43.

[4] Kevin Phillips, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution. (New York, NY: 2012), 191.

[5] Phillips (2012), 364.

[6] Robert O. Heavner, “Indentured Servitude: The Philadelphia Market, 1771-1773. The Journal of Economic History 38 (1978), 701-713.

[7] Phillips (2012), 366.

[8] John Waering, “Preventative and Punitive Regulation in Seventeenth-Century Social Policy: Conflicts of Interests and the Failure to Make ‘Stealing and Transporting Children, and Other Persons’ a Felony, 1645-73. Social History 27 (2002), 288-308.

[9] Waering (2002), 291.

[10] Abbot Emerson Smith, “Indentured Servants: New Light on some of America’s “First” Families. The Journal of Economic History 2 (1942), 40-53.

[11] Phillips (2012), 192.

[12] Phillips (2012), 366.

[13] Waering (2002), 290.

[14] Phillips (2012), 365.

[15] Waering (2002), 290 n 15.

[16] Phillips (2012), 365.

[17] Hilary McD. Beckles. “Plantation Production and White ‘Proto-Slavery’: White Indentured Servants and the Colonisation of the English West Indies, 1624-1645. The Americas 41 (1985), 21-45.

[18] Rona S. Weiss, “Primitive Accumulation in the United States: the Interaction between Capitalist and Noncapitalist Class Relations in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts. The Journal of Economic History 42 (1982), 77-82. Weiss defines feudalism “as a particular class relation and form of surplus appropriation by way of rents,” and Kahana (2007) says that “the very words master and servant evoke images of a feudal system, where a fief (feodum) was literally a form of property recognized at law”: Jeffrey S. Kahana, Master and Servant in the Early Republic, 1780-1830. Journal of the Early Republic 20 (2000), 27-57.

[19] Phillips (2012), 366.

[20] Galenson (1984),  10.

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