A Colonial History of African-Americans

African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals
by David Hackett Fischer
Simon & Schuster
960 pp., $40.00

Since the 1989 publication of his widely admired but controversial Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer has been a figure to reckon with. Subsequent publications such as Paul Revere’s Ride (1994) and Washington’s Crossing (2004) have further established his reputation as an American historian of the first rank, one whose works are meticulously documented, rigorous, and accessible. Moreover, he has consistently demonstrated an independence of mind increasingly rare in an era of historical writing steeped in anti-racist pieties.

By contrast to The 1619 Project and similar works that offer up a vision of America as irredeemably tainted by systemic racism, African Founders, while acknowledging the “persistent evils” of slavery and racism, attempts to assert an alternative vision—one in which the traditions of liberty, equality, and the rule of law transcended those evils and were embraced, with impressive results, by masters and slaves alike. Fischer tells his story well, though in a sprawling fashion that too often strays from the central focus expressed in its subtitle. Moreover, at times he seems to imply that cultural diversity belongs on the list of American ideals, as if it were in itself an inherent good rather than simply a reality that, for better or worse, we must accept.

In his introduction, Fischer declares his intention of writing an “open inquiry,” following the example of Herodotus. His central question is a daunting one: What happened “when Africans and Europeans came to North America, and the growth of race slavery collided with expansive ideas of freedom and liberty and rule of law in the European and mostly English-speaking colonies …”?

His method is similar to that employed in Albion’s Seed. He proceeds by identifying nine distinct American regions, each founded by separate groups of northern Europeans whose purposes and cultural traits were sometimes radically different from one another. Each of these in turn engaged in the African slave trade, bringing to their regions populations of slaves whose own distinctive origins have too often been overlooked and whose capacity for adapting to the cultural norms of their masters, while still maintaining their own group identities, was in itself both remarkable and fateful for the development of the colonies, which eventually merged into the Union forged at the Constitutional Convention.

Fischer’s method has been notably enhanced by the development in recent years of digital historical databases, especially those focused on tracing the African origins of enslaved peoples. Among these resources is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which, by 2008, after years of development by international scholars, had compiled data “on nearly 35,000 transatlantic slave voyages from 1501 to 1867,” resulting in a dramatically greater understanding of the precise geographical origins of the approximately 400,000 slaves who were brought to North America over the course of 366 years.

Such raw data, of course, is only useful if one understands something about the languages, customs, power structures, and religious beliefs of the regions in question. Fischer supplies this understanding admirably. In fact, during the years when this book was gestating, he traveled several times to those parts of Africa—Senegal, Mali, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire (“the Ivory Coast”), et al.—whence many of the slaves destined for North America originated.

According to the 1790 census, some 16,000 Africans lived in New England, most of them slaves, some free blacks. Their origins were varied, but Fischer estimates that well over half of them (or their parents and grandparents) were purchased on the Gold Coast, and most of these were Akan-speaking Asante and Fante peoples, known for their intelligence and martial spirit. Fischer notes that New England slaves “rapidly developed a distinctive pattern of association that set them apart from slaves in other cultural regions.” Puritan masters frequently allowed “temporal liberties” to their slaves, who responded by extending and cultivating their ethnic ties to Africa.

In one instance, near Lynn, Massachusetts, a well-known freed slave known as “King Pompey” organized an annual reunion of sorts for slaves in neighboring towns who came together by the hundreds, with the approval of their masters, to “celebrate their African origins.” In another instance, slaves used their days of liberty to organize “Militia Training Days,” where they were allowed to muster and march on designated “training fields.” More significant were “Negro Election Days,” annual events in which slaves, in emulation of their Puritan masters, elected “Negro governors” in Connecticut and Rhode Island or “Negro kings” in royal colonies, like New Hampshire.

Such festivities were widely practiced for over a century and generally included both English and African customs. Moreover, the power given to these Negro leaders was more than ceremonial; they were given authority to settle disputes among slaves, to try criminal cases, and more. Fischer argues that something extraordinary was enacted in these customs: “New England masters were sharing a measure of legitimate power and authority with African slaves.”

Naturally, in a culture saturated in anti-racist bigotry, we hear little of such practices today. That would, of course, cast doubt on the official narrative. One could argue that the liberties allowed slaves in New England and the encouragement of such democratic rituals were merely a cunning mechanism of control, but Fischer suggests that these examples of shared power, however limited in scope, played a role in the growth of anti-slavery sentiment in New England, and especially in the movement for suffrage reform.

In New Netherland, the Dutch traders and entrepreneurs who settled the colony favored slaves from the Congo and Angola, regions already skilled in the manufacture of quality textiles, with well-established trade networks in central and western Africa. Like their Dutch masters, they were adept at commerce and, as Fischer notes, “played the capitalist game of getting and keeping with remarkable success.”

How were they able to do this? Slavery in New Netherland was a corporate enterprise initiated and managed by the Dutch West India Company. Slaves who demonstrated commercial skills and ambitions were frequently allowed to acquire property and to accumulate profit. To the extent that they did so, they became “half free” while expanding “their own rights and privileges.” Prior to the British takeover of the colony, many half-free slaves doggedly pursued their full freedom, often petitioning Dutch authorities with success, resulting in a large population of free blacks residing in and around New Amsterdam.

For those who remained enslaved, conditions under British authority became more repressive, eventually resulting in the revolts of 1712 in the Hudson Valley and 1741 in Manhattan. While these uprisings led to harsh reprisals by authorities, the unrest also brought many among the master class to a greater awareness of the brutality of slavery, which then fed the growing antislavery movement in that colony, especially among the Anglican clergy.

“Landing Negroes at Jamestown
from Dutch Man-of-War, 1619,”
by Howard Pyle (
Harper’s Monthly
Magazine, Jan. 1901, Public domain)

In the Chesapeake region, and particularly in Virginia’s lower tidewater district, where that colony’s Cavalier elite (royalists in support of King Charles I) was concentrated, some 60 percent of the slaves in the early 18th century were from the Bight of Biafra and were mostly Ibo-speaking Igbo peoples, known for a spirit of “independence and individuality.” They were well-suited for adaptation to the political environment of the colonies since, in Africa, they had known no kings. As one oft-repeated Igbo proverb ran, “Ike di na awaja na awaja” (Power flows in many channels).

These concentrations of Biafran slaves were also amplified by the practice of “entail,” wherein slaves became the inalienable property of the estate. Indeed, to a greater degree than most of the other colonies, Virginia discouraged the separation of slave families for numerous reasons. Additionally, the development of distinct slave communities was encouraged by the use of “quartering” on large plantations, wherein extended families of slaves were segregated into semi-autonomous communities in which matriarchal lineages were perpetuated over many generations, just as they had been in Africa.

Such continuity also made it possible for relations between masters and slaves to become more intimate and familial. Slave weddings, for example, which combined both African and English customs, were occasions that brought both masters and slaves together, at least temporarily, within a shared conviviality, and encouraged a degree of mutual affection and respect that many today might find difficult to comprehend. Such relations were preserved most memorably, perhaps, in the now proscribed tales of Thomas Nelson Page, however idealized those depictions might be.

None of this is to deny the underlying brutality of slavery in the Chesapeake or elsewhere, but as early as 1782, many prominent Virginia families were supportive of manumission laws, which reflected the hope that slavery would eventually be abolished in the Chesapeake region. While schemes for abolition were unsuccessful, Fischer notes that the manumission movement “gave rise to individual acts of emancipation, sometimes on a large scale.” One notable example was that of Richard Randolph (a cousin of Thomas Jefferson), who inherited 100 slaves and, when his health declined in the 1790s, emancipated all of them in his will—a directive that was faithfully carried out by his widow.

Perhaps most interesting in Fischer’s treatment of the Chesapeake region is his claim that it produced more African leaders than other regions, due at least in part to the example of leadership among its slaveholding elite, who embodied what has been called “a hierarchical system of hegemonic liberty and freedom.” However oxymoronic the concept may seem, there is no doubt that many of the most influential of the Founders were bred within such a system. And black leaders, like Harriet Tubman (who was enslaved in Maryland), Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington, embraced those ideals of liberty and freedom with undoubted conviction and passion. It is certainly questionable, however, whether the many prominent African leaders discussed by Fischer can justifiably be counted among the “founders” of America (as the book’s title suggests). On the other hand, it is certainly true, and well-supported in Fischer’s argument, that those leaders “expanded” upon the founding ideals.

The foregoing paragraphs have offered merely snapshots that reveal a small part of the riches to be found in this study. Yet, as rich as it is, the book is not without weaknesses. Among these is Fischer’s lamentable tendency to digress, sometimes at great length. For example, while dozens of pages detailing the causes and results of slave revolts do, up to a point, provide some useful context for his central argument, African Founders could certainly have benefited by the services of a more aggressive editor, unafraid of trimming.

Another problem is that key terms sometimes remain ill-defined. The term “diversity,” for instance, is used repeatedly in the book, not only to describe the diverse reality of the racial, ethnic, and religious culture that emerged in North America during the 17th century but also in a way that seems at times to inflate the value of the term, placing it on a par with liberty and equality (though Fischer never makes that comparison explicitly).

Consider the following: Speaking of the identity we know as “African-American” (a coinage that seems to have originated late in the 18th century among blacks themselves, predating all the other hyphenated ethnic identities), Fischer writes that “This new invention of hyphenated ethnicity became a fundamental idea of profound importance in the United States,” first appearing in the most “ethnically diverse cities.”

In such passages, Fischer seems to embrace uncritically the notion that America would be, culturally speaking, a deeply impoverished nation had it not been infused with the profusion of races and nationalities that today are on the verge of displacing the legacy of its northern European founders, those whose passion for liberty gave birth to the Constitution. This is hardly an accident of history, for the Constitution would have been unthinkable outside the long durée of European history, dating back to the Athenians of the 5th century, B.C.

This is not to suggest that the African-American contribution to the rich tapestry of American life is negligible. On the contrary, in many respects, that contribution has been both admirable and profound. But diversity is not in itself an unalloyed good, as we can see in many of our “ethnically diverse” communities today, which can hardly be regarded as examples of those shining cities on a hill imagined by the visionary John Winthrop.

To end, however, on a more positive note, African Founders is an important work that deserves to be widely read and studied, for it is a powerful counterthrust against the pernicious influence of the anti-racist propaganda that now dominates our intellectual discourse. As Fischer states forcefully in his conclusion, “Racism in its infinite variations will always exist in America and elsewhere. But to condemn the United States as a fundamentally racist society is false.” What such condemnations overlook, above all, is the heroic efforts of African-Americans themselves to enlarge “fundamental American rights”—efforts that have been largely successful.

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