Today most Americans, black and white, identify slavery with cotton, the deep South, and the African-American church. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, after almost two hundred years of African-American life in mainland North America, few slaves grew cotton, lived in the deep South, or embraced Christianity. Many Thousands Gone traces the evolution of black society from the first arrivals in the early seventeenth century through the Revolution. In telling their story, Ira Berlin, a leading historian of southern and African-American life, reintegrates slaves into the history of the American working class and into the tapestry of our nation. Laboring as field hands on tobacco and rice plantations, as skilled artisans in port cities, or soldiers along the frontier, generation after generation of African Americans struggled to create a world of their own in circumstances not of their own making. In a panoramic view that stretches from the North to the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina lowcountry to the Mississippi Valley, Many Thousands Gone reveals the diverse forms that slavery and freedom assumed before cotton was king. We witness the transformation that occurred as the first generations of creole slaves ?who worked alongside their owners, free blacks, and indentured whites ?gave way to the plantation generations, whose back-breaking labor was the sole engine of their society and whose physical and linguistic isolation sustained African traditions on American soil. As the nature of the slaves ? labor changed with place and time, so did the relationship between slave and master, and between slave and society. In this fresh and vivid interpretation, Berlin demonstrates that the meaning of slavery and of race itself was continually renegotiated and redefined, as the nation lurched toward political and economic independence and grappled with the Enlightenment ideals that had inspired its birth.
Berlin begins with a look at societies with slaves. Examining the Chesapeake region, Berlin writes, “Into the middle years of the seventeenth century and perhaps later, slaves enjoyed the benefits extended to white servants in the mixed labor force” (pg. 32). He continues, “As long as the boundary between slavery and freedom remained permeable, and as long as white and black labored in the fields together, racial slavery remained only one labor system among many” (pg. 38). Of the North, he writes, “Slaves were neither an inconsequential element in northern economic development nor an insignificant portion of the northern population during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (pg. 54). He writes of the Lower Mississippi Valley, “The evolution of slavery in the lower Mississippi Valley during the eighteenth century ran backward, from slave society to society with slaves. In the process, black life in Louisiana changed from African to creole, rather than creole to African” (pg. 77).
Transitioning to slave societies, Berlin writes, “The plantation’s distinguishing mark was its peculiar social order, which concede nearly everything to the slaveowner and nothing to the slave” (pg. 97). Further, “As plantation production expanded and the planters’ domination grew, slaves in mainland North America faced higher levels of discipline, harsher working conditions, and greater exploitation than ever before” (pg. 106). He writes of the Chesapeake, “The Africanization of slavery marked a sharp deterioration in the conditions of slave life” (pg. 111). This included increased violence and a new focus on paternalism rather than patronage. Of the Lowcountry and the rise of rice production, Berlin writes, “The battle over the slaves’ economy paralleled, complemented, and complicated the struggle over the masters’ economy, with masters and slaves negotiating and renegotiating the rights to which each believed themselves fully entitled” (pg. 165). Of the lower Mississippi Valley, he writes, “If the plantation revolution affected the northern colonies indirectly, it touched the lower Mississippi Valley – the colonies of Louisiana and West Florida – hardly at all” (pg. 195). Berlin continues, “As the century progressed, slavery in the lower Mississippi Valley increasingly became an urban-centered institution, as in many other societies with slaves” (pg. 199).
Examining the Revolutionary generation, Berlin writes, “The new societies of free and slave did not emerge everywhere at once. Freedom triumphed only in the northern states and then only slowly and imperfectly. But nowhere did slavery enjoy an uninterrupted ascent” (pg. 227). Of the North, he writes, “The American Revolution reversed the development of northern slavery – first, liquidating the remnants of slave society; then, revivifying the North as a society with slaves; finally, transforming the society with slaves into a free society” (pg. 228). He continues, “The heady notions of universal human equality that justified American independence gave black people a powerful weapon with which to attack chattel bondage” (pg. 231). Meanwhile, in the Upper South, “Thousands of slaves gained their freedom in the Upper South, and the greatly enlarged free black population began to reconstruct black life in freedom. But the expansion of slavery and with it a host of new forms of racial dependencies more than counterbalanced the growth of freedom” (pg. 256). During the war, “As slaveholders piled new tasks upon the old, increasing the slaves’ duties and lengthening their workday, wartime changes evoked new struggles between master and slave over the terms of labor and the circumstances of slave life” (pg. 263). In South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, “As nowhere else on the North American continent, the War for American Independence in the Lower South became a bitter civil war, filled with a savage, fratricidal violence that tore the fabric of society” (pg. 291). He continues, “While the war disrupted plantation life in the Upper South and forced master and slave to renegotiate the terms under which slaves labored, it altered plantation life and labor in the Lower South in far more fundamental ways. With slave discipline in disrepair, slaveholders bowed to the slaves’ demands, allowing them to enlarge their own economies” (pg. 301-302). Of the Lower Mississippi Valley, Berlin writes, “The purchase of Louisiana by the United States ended the great wave of manumissions and self-purchases that had spurred the increase in the number of free people of color. The planter-controlled territorial legislature abruptly terminated the rights the slaves enjoyed” (pg. 333). He continues, “Just as tobacco had earlier remade the Chesapeake and rice the lowcountry, the sugar and cotton revolutions forever altered the livelihood and lives of blacks and whites in the lower Mississippi” (pg. 343).