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‘To Carry the Machine Forward’
Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia by Gerald W. Mullin, 1972, Oxford U. Press, 213 pages


Nero the Pict gifted this very useful book to me. It is an academic attempt to break with the convention of the day in the study of slavery, which was two-fold:

-A top down view of the slave’s life, rather than a bottom up view of life

-A chronological view of American slavery rather than the conventional view that slavery remained unchanged from 1830 through 1860 and that the form of slavery and the slave society it necessitated before this period was of no consequence other than as a deterministic progression to the supposedly static 30 year period preceding the Civil War

Mullin is to be commended to also limiting his study to a single province, the Plantation, later Colony and still later State of Virginia.

In his introduction, had he done nothing else of use in the search for the truth of Plantation America, he cited an invaluable source, Robert ‘King’ Carter. Interestingly he also cited a passage in a 1726 letter from William Byrd II, which he fails to properly evaluate, just as did T. H. Breen a decade later in Puritans and Adventurers, as, being an academic, he has been programmed to replace the actual meaningful words of the primary source, with 20th century fantasy terms. Below is the passage from the letter, followed by a clear discussion of the actual meaning. I have arranged the text, which is a single paragraph, into discussion blocks.

-1. “Besides the advantage of a pure Air, we abound in all kinds of provisions without expense (I mean we who have Plantations). I have a large Family of my own, and my Doors are open to Every Body, yet I have no Bills to pay, and half-a-Crown may rest undisturbed in my Pocket for many Moons together.”

Byrd, infers, to anyone with the crudest understanding of economics, that those without plantations must live in poverty, as the plantation, a place of abundant natural resources and free labor, needs no intercourse with whatever free folk who might not own Plantations who might live in the vicinity. A supreme parasite, Byrd injects zero money into the local economy, gaining his infrequently spent coin from exporting goods directly from his plantation to the international market. This point is strengthened in the passage below.

-2. “Like one of the Patriarchs, I have my Flocks and my Herds, my Bond-men and Bond-women, and every Soart of trade amongst my own Servants, so that I live in a kind of Independence on everyone but Providence.”

Byrd draws his moral standing as a slaver from the Old Testament, likening himself to a Hebrew Patriarch, justified under God in his ownership of lesser humans. Of second importance is his nonhuman livestock, a primary resource named before his extractive human resource. Of third importance to his standing is his great herd of chattel, human livestock, referred to in the manner of the time as Bond-men and Bond-women. Byrd makes no racial distinction and the ass of an academic Mullin makes sure to twist his words “…the patriarch’s ‘Bond-men’ were slaves, most of who were born in Africa…” This statement is true in likening the Bond-men to slaves, which they were, but is patently untrue in characterizing them as predominantly African. Indeed, runaway ads from the period feature non-African slaves almost exclusively. It seems at this time that in Virginia, Chattel of European and African origin were held in roughly equal numbers, as they were in neighboring Maryland. Mullin goes on to state that Africans were totally cut off from “whites and their ways” when they lived and worked side-by-side with white slaves and were granted more house slave positions than whites, bringing them in close contact with the master class. In Virginia European and African slaves were generally housed in separate barracks at this time, due to fear of them cooperating together in slave revolts. In fact, Byrd contradicts Mullin’s false reading when he claims to have “every Soart of Trade among my Servants” which means he had mechanics, carpenters, blacksmiths, grooms, a whole host of skill sets beyond the range of freshly imported African slaves.

-3. “However this Soart of Life is without Expense, yet it is attended with a great deal of trouble. I must take care to keep all my people to their Duty, to set all the Springs in motion and make every one draw his equal Share to carry the Machine forward. But then ‘tis an amusement in this silent Country and a continual exercise in our Patience and Economy.”

When men of the 18th century capitalize a word, it is a way of noting that that word is an important issue on his mind as he writes, that it is a concept imbued with meaning, like “Servant.” Byrd does not capitalize “people,” while at the same sentence placing emphasis on “Duty” “Springs” “Share” and “Machine.” Especially in his final sentence, where he regards the ruling of his chattel as an amusement and also a demonstration of his qualities, Byrd portrays himself as a monster in the mold of the coming industrialists of England and America, a morally saturated fiend to whom humans are mere moving parts in the machine whose spark is at once his greed and his Godly self-image.

Not once does Byrd mention race in this passage, though he elsewhere notes the need to segregate the slave races as a control measure and he clearly places all servile humans lower than cattle and lower yet than a machine, at the same time crowing about his ability to avoid all social responsibility among the greater society and his ability to contribute nothing to it. His notion of Independence is the quintessential notion of Liberty held by the American elite from 1617 through today, that being the freedom to exploit lesser humans, and predicts the oligarchic hijacking of the American Plantation System from its British masters by 49 years.

But such men, the blinkered historian struggling in the academic dark, to the fiendish soul-dealer standing piously at God’s right hand, have left us many a clue to the uncovering of the true history of Plantation America.

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Add Comment
CollinsSeptember 7, 2018 8:51 PM UTC

Was the letter written to someone back in London?

I ask because he also capitalized ‘Air.’

As I understand it, this letter was long before ‘germ theory’ but they definitely worried about pollution and ‘bad air’’ and connected it to health per ‘miasma theory.’ So those who could avoid the ‘bad’ air of the cities, did so.

Now I’m less sure about this next part, but I also think that by 1726 the writing was on the wall in terms of English estates being net producers. To earn big bucks might have meant going into the city —pardon me, the City, and overseeing some business entity or picking up information and doing clever things with your moolah or something.

So, another thing that might have been going on in that letter was the sort of bragging/selling that ex-pats and people who move to different parts of the country do when writing home —‘It’s great here! You should come!’

I speculate the capitalization of ‘Air’ was a key part of a pitch he’s making; he’s saying ‘look, you can’t make real coin in England anymore without being in London a lot and risking illness. But here we hang on the estates all year round —where the air is good, like kings, AND the estate is not only not a net drain vacation home, but it’s the main engine of return.’

Still further, this type of pitch would probably resonate with certain personalities more than others —it’s essentially a capital preservation + health preservation pitch —he’s not saying we’re splitting the atom here. And the personalities who took up the offer would pass on their views to their kids, and on and on.
responds:September 8, 2018 4:21 AM UTC

Yes, this was written to a person in England.