Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone

Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone
Book Review

Berlin traces the evolution of black society from the first arrivals in the early seventeenth century through the American Revolution, reintegrates slaves into the history of the American working class, and reveals the diverse forms that slavery and freedom assumed before cotton was the mainstay of the slave economy. You witness the transformation that occurred as the first generations of Creole slaves, free blacks, and indentured whites gave way to the plantation generations, whose exhausting labor was the sole engine of their society and whose physical and linguistic seclusion sustained African traditions on American soil. Berlin demonstrates that the meaning of slavery and of race itself was continually redefined, as the nation moved toward political and economic independence.

Berlin argues that despite an inherent power imbalance, slavery was a negotiated relationship between slave and owner. Even in the worst of circumstances, slaves always held a strong card: the threat of rebellion. Through this negotiation, slaves not only carved out an independent social sphere from sundown to sunup, they created their own world under the owners\' noses from sunup to sundown as well.

Additionally, slavery itself continually changed, and hence the terms of the relationship frequently had to be renegotiated. Slavery was not a static institution, as many historians have portrayed it. Berlin\'s signal contribution is to drive home that slave life differed from place to place and from time to time.

Berlin divides his study by both place and time. He identifies and examines four distinct slave societies in the first 200 years of North American slavery: the North; the Chesapeake Bay area; the coastal low country of South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Florida; and the lower Mississippi Valley of west Florida and Louisiana.

He periodizes slave history and slaves themselves into the charter generations (charter refers to the crown charters of such early colonies as Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay), the plantation generations, and the Revolutionary generations.

Berlin also divides his study socio-economically into societies with slaves and slave societies. In the former, slaves, mainly multinational, multilingual Atlantic Creoles, were marginal to the region\'s central production processes, and slavery was one form of lower labor among many. In slave societies, slavery stood at the very center of economic production, with a domineering and patriarchal master-slave relationship serving as the model for all social relationships, including father and child and husband and wife.

Berlin points to the establishment of the plantation system as the main cause of the shift from the charter generation societies with slaves to slave societies and with it the degradation of American black life. On the plantation, the planter was the self-appointed master who owned everything and everyone.

Worse, the plantation took slavery\'s already established color-coding and naturalized and rationalized the existing order through the use of racial ideologies. In plantation-dominated regions, African slavery was not just one form of subordination among many, but the very foundation of social order.

All the regions examined by Berlin evolved from societies with slaves into slave societies, with the change occurring as early as the turn of the 18th century in the Chesapeake and low country regions and as late as the 1790s in the lower Mississippi Valley.

Even the North, for unique economic reasons, developed slave society attributes before the institution finally died there, with a resultant permanent loss of status by all blacks in the region, slave and free alike.

Three revolutions subsequently transformed slavery. The first was the Plantation Revolution. Beginning in Barbados, where tobacco cultivation gave way to sugar production and the slave system overwhelmed indentured servitude and wage labor, planters consolidated their economic and political power. The plantation revolution, which hit the Chesapeake in the late seventeenth century and the Carolinas in the eighteenth, encouraged massive importation of slaves directly from Africa, adoption of new laws depriving free blacks of their rights and privileges, and increased labor regimentation.

The democratic revolutions of the late 18th century had a vital but not uniform impact on the evolution of American slavery, toppling the institution in the North, strengthening it in the low country, and pulling it back and forth between freedom and repression in the Chesapeake and the Mississippi Valley. These revolutions were intellectual, political, and military. The Enlightenment and the evangelical religious movement led to the first sustained opposition to