The United States of America has a reputation as a beacon of freedom and diversity from the colonial period of its history. From the beginning, however, Americans' freedoms were tied to a mixture of religious and ethnic affiliations that privileged some inhabitants of North America over others. Although European ideas of liberty set the tone for what was possible, those liberties looked somewhat different in colonial North America, where indigenous and African peoples and cultures also had some influence. The result was greater freedom for some and unprecedented slavery and dispossession for others, making colonial America a society of greater diversity—for better and for worse—than Europe.
America's indigenous traditions of immigration and freedom created the context that made European colonization possible. Since time immemorial, the original inhabitants of the Americas were accustomed to dealing with strangers. They forged alliances and exchange networks, accepted political refugees, and permitted people in need of land and protection to settle in territories that they controlled but could share. No North American society was cut off from the world or completely autonomous. Thus, there was no question about establishing ties with the newcomers arriving from Europe. Initially arriving in small numbers, bearing valuable items to trade, and offering added protection from enemies, these Europeans could, it seemed, strengthen indigenous communities. They were granted rights to use certain stretches of land, much in the way that other Native American peoples in need would have been, especially in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. However, Europeans, and all they brought with them—disease, beliefs regarding private property, ever more immigrants, and, occasionally, ruthless violence—undermined indigenous liberty. When Native Americans contested this, wars erupted—wars they could not win. Those who were able to avoid living as slaves or virtual servants of the Europeans (as some did) were driven from their homes.
Occasionally, a colonial ruler who wanted to preserve peace, like William Penn, would strive to respect the rights of indigenous Americans. However, given that both indigenous and European ideas of liberty rested on access to land and its resources, it was difficult for both Europeans and Native Americans to be free in the same territory at the same time without some sort of neutral arbiter. On the eve of the American Revolution, it seemed as if the British government might be able to play that role. After all, British Americans also looked to the monarchy to guarantee their liberties. American independence ended that option. Thereafter, America's original inhabitants had no one to mediate between them and the people who gained so much from exploiting them. Nor did the Africans brought as slaves to work what had once been their land.
For Africans, as with Native Americans, liberty was inseparable from one's family ties. Kinship (whether actual or fictive) gave an individual the rights and protection necessary to be able to live in freedom. To be captured by enemies and separated from one's kin put a person in tremendous danger. Although some captives could be adopted into other societies and treated more or less as equals, most were reduced to a condition of slavery and had little influence over their destiny. Even before they arrived in North America, Africans brought to the New World as slaves had already been separated from their home communities within Africa. Without kin, they had to forge new relationships with complete strangers—and everyone, including most fellow Africans they encountered, was a stranger—if they were to improve their lot at all. Escape was very difficult, and no community of fugitive slaves lasted for long. Unlike Native Americans, who could find a degree of freedom by moving away from the frontier, Africans had to struggle for what liberty they could from within the British society whose prosperity often depended on their forced labor.
Europeans, particularly those with wealth enough to own land or slaves, possessed the greatest freedoms in early America. The French, Spanish, and Dutch established colonies on land that would eventually become part of the United States. Each brought a distinct approach to liberty. For the French and Spanish, who came from societies where peasants still did most of the work of farming, liberty lay in the avoidance of agricultural labor. Aristocrats, who owned the land and profited from the peasants' toil, stood at the top with the most freedom. Merchants and artisans, who lived and worked in cities free of feudal obligations, came next. In North America, the French fur traders who preferred to spend their lives bartering among Native Americans rather than farming in French Canada echoed this view of freedom. Missionaries attempting to convert those same peoples could be seen as another variant of this tradition of liberty, one unknown to the Protestant British. In every colony, Europeans lived in a range of circumstances, from poor indentured servants to wealthy merchants and plantation owners.
Religion was inseparable from the experience of liberty in the European empires. The French and Spanish empires were officially Roman Catholic and did all within their power to convert or expel those who would not conform. The Dutch, on the other hand, had a different approach, befitting their condition as a small, newly independent, but economically dynamic nation. Though only Reformed Protestants enjoyed the full benefits of Dutch citizenship, they displayed an unusual openness to talented foreign immigrants, like Iberian Jews, while they relegated native-born Roman Catholics to second-class status. It was through their ties to Amsterdam, Dutch Brazil, and the Dutch Caribbean that Jews first staked a claim to live and work in North America.
The English colonies played the definitive role in early America's experience of liberty. As immigrants from Scotland, Germany, France, Scandinavia, and elsewhere became incorporated into the Anglo-American world, they staked a claim to liberty through British culture and institutions. The heritage on which the British Empire rested was complicated, however, encompassing a great deal of political conflict (two revolutions in the seventeenth century alone) and religious diversity. The British colonies in North America were home to the Puritans of New England, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, and the Roman Catholics of Maryland, as well as to Anglicans, members of the Church of England. Living in America offered an excellent chance to claim the rights and liberties of Englishmen, even when it seemed like those liberties were imperiled back in Europe. Indeed, the desire to preserve those liberties from the threat of a new British government prompted colonists to fight for independence in 1776.
Liberty in eighteenth-century Britain was associated with the national representational body of Parliament and the Protestant religion, which had been declared the official faith of England in the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, a long cycle of constitutional crises, civil wars, and revolution drove home what by the eighteenth century was a commonplace ethos for many Englishmen: liberty depended on Protestantism, property ownership, and a monarchy mixed with representative government. Conversely, Catholicism and absolute monarchy, as existed in Spain and France, brought tyranny and a loss of liberty.
Liberty thus began in America with a peculiar mix of religious, ethnic, political, economic, and legal associations, all of them based on denying civil, religious, and economic liberty to others. Among the free, European-descended, Protestant colonists who enjoyed the most liberty, only men with property—who were deemed eligible to vote and hold public office—gained the full benefits. The liberties of women, children, and men without property depended on their connections to propertied men, whether as relatives, patrons, or employers. As most British colonists understood history, English liberties had been secured only after a long, hard fight, and these liberties were under constant threat—from Roman Catholics, the French, or the greed and corruption that, they thought, inevitably arose when those in government grew too powerful. Liberty, they believed, was limited. The idea that everyone could enjoy similar liberties did not cross their mind; they worried instead about the possibility that everyone in America could be a slave or servant to someone else.
In many ways, the story of American liberty is about how people of different religious and ethnic origins gradually acquired rights that had been associated only with Protestant English men of property. Despite their original association with a particular national, ethnic, and religious group, English liberties proved fairly flexible in America. Americans lived in a society with more chances to attain the ideal of liberty associated with owning property—particularly a farm of one's own—than was possible in England, where property ownership was increasingly restricted to a small elite. Colonies like Pennsylvania granted far more religious freedom than existed in England. The colonial charters granted by the British monarchy protected these liberties, and, in fact, Pennsylvania celebrated the anniversary of these constitutional freedoms guaranteed by the English crown when it the commissioned the liberty bell.
The early American belief in the limited nature of liberty helps us to understand why it was so difficult for those who had it to extend it to others. Americans lived in a world full of slavery—the ultimate opposite of freedom—an institution that had not been present in England for hundreds of years. And yet, the colonial history of America, tied very early to the promotion of slavery, convinced many colonists that the ability to hold non-European people (mostly African, but also Native American) as slaves was a fundamental English liberty. Some even returned to England with their slaves, and expected English laws to protect their property in people as they did in the colonies. Free colonists were surrounded by people—servants and slaves—who either lacked liberty or, as in the case of Native Americans, were rapidly losing it. This paradox helps explain the reluctance of colonial Americans to allow others, like more recent German immigrants, to share the same liberties they enjoyed. In many ways, their prosperity depended on those peoples' lack of liberty and property. All could try for freedom in colonial America, but not all had equal access to it.
America's history of liberty is inseparable from its history of immigration and colonization dating back to the first Native American treaties. Unfortunately, the liberty Europeans claimed in America was accompanied by slavery and reduced liberties for many others. The possibility of liberty for some was always accompanied by a struggle for freedom for many others.
Evan Haefeli is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University, where he researches and teaches on Native American history, colonial American history, and the history of religious tolerance.
David M. Oshinsky, who teaches history at Rutgers University, would be the first to acknowledge his debt to historians like C. Vann Woodward, Vernon L. Wharton and many others whose work on the history of race relations in the South, and in Mississippi specifically, has made this field one of the most thoroughly cultivated in American historiography. Building on their studies of emancipation, Reconstruction and the post-Reconstruction ''New South,'' Mr. Oshinsky places the story of Mississippi's notorious Parchman prison farm in the context of sharecropping, convict leasing, lynching and the legalized segregation that replaced slavery. In vigorous, hard-hitting prose, he exposes the nature of the new system of race relations that was indeed worse in some ways than the kind abolished in 1865.
Yet this book makes clear that Parchman in its heyday as a prison farm was not the worst part of this new slavery. Actually, it may have been one of the least of the evils that characterized Mississippi's racial injustice. Mr. Oshinsky portrays Mississippi as consistently the nation's most violent state from the 1830's to the 1930's. Its frontier status in the early years of the antebellum cotton boom produced an astonishing crop of murders, duels, cuttings and gougings among white men. It also produced record crops of cotton grown by slaves working in a brutally repressive plantation system.
During Reconstruction the Ku Klux Klan and local rifle clubs murdered hundreds of freed slaves, now Republican voters, in the successful effort to make Mississippi safe for the Democratic Party. In the New South Mississippi led the nation ''in every imaginable kind of mob atrocity: most lynchings, most multiple lynchings, most lynchings of women, most lynchings without an arrest, most lynchings of a victim in police custody and most public support for the process itself.'' Nearly half a century later, in the 1930's, ''Mississippians earned less, killed more and died younger than other Americans. They were five times more likely to be illiterate than a Pennsylvanian and ten times more likely to take another person's life.''
This culture of violence provided the setting for the most infamous form of criminal justice in American history, the convict leasing system that prevailed in most Southern states for a generation or more after emancipation. Not surprisingly, Mississippi invented convict leasing. Under slavery, black criminals had been punished on the plantation. Virtually the only jail inmates were whites. The Civil War destroyed many jails and penitentiaries, while emancipation more than doubled the free population. The crime wave and political violence that accompanied Reconstruction overwhelmed the few and inadequate jails. In desperation, Mississippi and other states turned to an expedient that quickly became an institution: the leasing of convicted criminals to private contractors, who paid a fee to the state and agreed to feed, clothe and shelter the convicts during their term of punishment.
But the motives of lessees were most emphatically not altruistic; they were in this business for profit. They used convicts to build railroads, to mine coal and iron, and to fell timber, make turpentine, clear land and grow cotton. Since nearly all leased convicts were black, few whites cared what happened to them. And if the supply of convicts fell below the demand, compliant legislators and country sheriffs stood ready to increase the supply. In 1876 the Mississippi legislature enacted the egregious ''pig law'' defining the theft of a farm animal or any property valued at $10 or more as grand larceny, punishable by up to five years in state prison. The convict population quadrupled overnight. Many contractors made fortunes from the cheap labor that they could exploit with impunity. Slaves had at least possessed the protection of their value as property; the lives of black convicts had no value in the eyes of whites. Mortality rates in convict camps rose to shocking levels. The death rate among convicts in Mississippi during the 1880's ranged from 9 to 16 percent annually. ''Not a single leased convict,'' Mr. Oshinsky notes, ''ever lived long enough to serve a sentence of 10 years or more.''
It was this system, not the Parchman prison, that the Southern reformer George Washington Cable described as ''worse than slavery.'' By the 1880's the barbarism of convict leasing had become an embarrassment even to white Mississippians. Reformers in all Southern states crusaded against the system. By the early 20th century they had succeeded in getting it abolished almost everywhere, though in several states it was replaced by state or county chain gangs -- not necessarily a great improvement.
In Mississippi, convict leasing was replaced by Parchman, a prison farm located on 20,000 acres of the world's richest cotton land, in the Yazoo-Mississippi delta. The best chapter in '' 'Worse Than Slavery' '' describes life and work for the inmates at Parchman from 1904 to the 1930's. During that time the proportion of black inmates declined from 90 to 70 percent. Whether Parchman was ''worse than slavery'' is not clear from Mr. Oshinsky's account. What is clear is that it was very much like slavery. The superintendent functioned like a slaveowner. The white guards (''sergeants'') were the overseers, and the ''trusties'' armed with shotguns and rifles resembled nothing so much as the black drivers on slave plantations. And Parchman was a huge plantation, growing thousands of bales of cotton, which produced a handsome profit for the state of Mississippi. Exploitation, violence, racism and repression characterized Parchman. Mr. Oshinsky reproduces the words of several blues songs that portray the Parchman experience with sad eloquence. But what emerges from Mr. Oshinsky's account is a set of ironies that he implicitly acknowledges but does not explicitly develop. Parchman was better than convict leasing. It was probably less brutal in its treatment of black inmates than the prisons or chain gangs of other Southern states. And in an odd twist, it may have been better in some respects than what the civil rights revolution of the 1960's forced it to become.
At that time, with in-your-face spite, Mississippi officials jailed hundreds of civil rights activists for a brief time at Parchman, including James Farmer and Stokely Carmichael. Their reports of dismal conditions focused a national spotlight on Parchman's dark corners that resulted in a class-action suit. A Federal district court ordered the state to reform, upgrade and desegregate the prison. Since 1970 it has been ''reformed.'' As a consequence, inmates who formerly worked from dawn to dusk in Parchman's cotton fields and fell into an exhausted sleep in the barracks now sit in their cells with little to do except vent their energy in deadly fights with one another. In desegregated barracks, black and white convicts who were once kept rigidly separated now prey on each other in organized gangs. ''The Federal court had shifted the balance of terror from the keepers to the inmates,'' Mr. Oshinsky writes, and in 1990 the Parchman emergency room treated the ''staggering number'' of 2,305 cases of assault.
Perhaps the ultimate irony was voiced by an elderly black inmate of almost 50 years at Parchman. In the old plantationlike prison, he said, he had ''the feeling that work counted for something . . . kept us tired and kept us together and made me feel better inside.'' But today, he added, ''I look around . . . and see a place that makes me sad.''