In 2003 Ira Berlin synthesized the enormous bibliography on American slavery in a superb, well written, and analytically sound work. It covers three centuries of chattel slavery and frames them around four different generations of African American slaves: charter generations, plantation generations, revolutionary generations, and migration generations. A fifth one, whose experience was shaped by freedom, is also discussed briefly in the epilogue.
Berlin’s use of different generations of slaves as a template for his chronological narrative is a very telling choice. It indicates that he is very concerned with the slaves’ agency as a historical force shaping slavery. Indeed this is the central idea throughout the book: slaves shaped the nature of slavery in an ongoing struggle and negotiation with the masters under different conditions and in different time periods. From the autonomy and the Atlantic cosmopolitanism enjoyed by some slaves and by freedmen during the seventeenth-century Charter generations to the subjection to harsh labor regimes in tobacco, rice, or cotton plantations in later periods, African American slaves always attempted to improve their working and living conditions in negotiations that ranged from the most apparently trivial aspect of daily life to the en masse enrollment in Northern armies during the Civil War.
Another argument emerges clearly throughout the book: slavery had many different faces across the centuries, so perhaps we could talk of many “slaveries” instead of a single “slavery.” While seventeenth-century slaves living in Atlantic port cities lived in urban environments, were often born in Africa or in Europe, and had a vigorous collective life and cultural institutions, nineteenth-century slaves living in Deep South cotton plantations had a substantially different experience. And the same goes for slaves employed in the Upper South mixed farming at the beginning of the nineteenth century – their experiences were different from the former two groups. One could add that, overall, there was a global trend towards becoming “provincials, linked to place, land, and kin,” (p.202) at the same time that the American economy developed and the nation spread Westwards, especially in the South.
Meanwhile, despite the abolitionist wave that arrived during the revolutionary era to the Northern states, especially to New England, Berlin argues that the North “acquiesced” with the expansion and maintenance of slavery up to the 1800s. There were a few exceptions, however, like black northern communities, which “developed an internal coherence in ideology, leadership, and institutions that stood in opposition to the plantation society from which these communities drew many of their members” (232). Even in freedom, the descendants of African American slaves fought against the peculiar institution.
In the end, slavery collapsed with the Civil War due not only to the action of federal troops from the outside, but also to the pressure that the slaves themselves exerted from the inside at every step of the process (259). As shown in the Epilogue, after emancipation the freedom generations projected their struggle for autonomy, family, religion, and education into the future, but some of the contended issues between slaves and masters now continued to be present in terms of struggles over labor. This is how the epilogue deftly connects the book’s central argument to the main issues discussed in the literature about post-emancipation in the Americas. Specialists in American slavery and African American history will probably find some points of contention, but from my point of view this book is excellent.