Ira Berlin's "Many Thousands Gone."

Essay by irish_hoosierUniversity, Bachelor's November 2005

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Berlin traces the evolution of black society from the first arrivals in the early seventeenth century through the American Revolution, reintegrates slaves into the history of the American working class, and reveals the diverse forms that slavery and freedom assumed before cotton was the mainstay of the slave economy. You witness the transformation that occurred as the first generations of Creole slaves, free blacks, and indentured whites gave way to the plantation generations, whose exhausting labor was the sole engine of their society and whose physical and linguistic seclusion sustained African traditions on American soil. Berlin demonstrates that the meaning of slavery and of race itself was continually redefined, as the nation moved toward political and economic independence.

Berlin argues that despite an inherent power imbalance, slavery was a negotiated relationship between slave and owner. Even in the worst of circumstances, slaves always held a strong card: the threat of rebellion.

Through this negotiation, slaves not only carved out an independent social sphere from sundown to sunup, they created their own world under the owners' noses from sunup to sundown as well.

Additionally, slavery itself continually changed, and hence the terms of the relationship frequently had to be renegotiated. Slavery was not a static institution, as many historians have portrayed it. Berlin's signal contribution is to drive home that slave life differed from place to place and from time to time.

Berlin divides his study by both place and time. He identifies and examines four distinct slave societies in the first 200 years of North American slavery: the North; the Chesapeake Bay area; the coastal low country of South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Florida; and the lower Mississippi Valley of west Florida and Louisiana.

He periodizes slave history and slaves themselves into the charter generations (charter refers to...