Foul Means

Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660 – 1740 by Anthony S. Parent Jr.

Cover to Foul MeansI’m generally not a fan of Marxist history but Parent’s Marxist framework contributes a element of earnestness which adds a compelling element to his argument. Parent inserts himself in the historiography of the development of early Virginia by arguing that the transition from mostly white servant labor to African slave labor was a conscious choice of a planter class seeking to solidify its economic, social, and political dominance of the colony. This compares with previous historians (such as Edmund Morgan, Winthrop Jordan, and others) who argued that the transition was more of an ‘unconscious’ drift driven, perhaps, by realites of the market. Parent makes his argument by tracing the land-grab by the “great planters” in the 16th and 17th centuries, the imposition of a race-based slave code into colonial law (which was not a natural import from England), and the development of an ideology of patriarchalism to justify the position of the class of men propped up by mass land holdings and racial slavery. What Parent’s argument does, is make the placement of race as the basis of American freedom (as argued by Morgan) a conscious undertaking and not a unthinking tragedy or natural outcome of forces outside of anyone’s control. This should, of course, cause one to reconsider this ‘golden age’ of Virginia society.

I am generally quite taken with Parent’s argument. I think he does an excellent job of challenging the notion of this as a ‘placid’ era in Virginia history. By running away, rebelling, and resisting slaves created an atmosphere which challenged the great planters and forced them to constantly seek new means of control and new justifications for their dominance. Parent challenges the idea (still held by some) that there was anything ‘natural’ about the dominance of the great families of Virginia. Instead their reign was always contested by both whites and, even more so, by blacks and was always troubled and contingent.

There are few flaws in Parent’s book, however. His chapter on class conflict within the planter class is muddled. His definitions of what separates great, middling, and small planter is often unclear and sometimes he seems to be arguing that the same set of events shows that planter class is uniting and dividing at the same time (often within the same sentence!). This chapter really bogs the book down and feels under-thought. While, I absolutely appreciated his chapter on religion (especially its treatment of religion as a form of social control) yet I feel that Parent doesn’t fully account for the resurgence of the Anglican Church in Virginia in the early eighteenth century, as noted by historians like Jon Butler. I think there is more to be examined between that resurgence and Parent’s argument of the emergence of ‘patriarchalism’.

That said, Foul Means is a great contribution to the literature on slavery and social development in Virginia in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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