Northam on “Indentured Servants” [Updated]

I’m starting to think Ralph Northam isn’t as smart as you would expect from someone who made it through medical school. After an appallingly bad week of press coverage, the last thing Northam needed was another controversy. And yet, he couldn’t help shooting himself in the foot again:

Massachusetts imported a lot of indentured servants, many of whom went on to successful careers and powerful positions. In Virginia, yeah, those “imports” from Africa were slaves. It was a lot tougher to go on to a successful career.

Virginia’s Democrats would no doubt put Governor Northam on the next plane out of town, except that his Lieutenant Governor is an alleged rapist. That gives him job security! The Virginia sh*tshow continues, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving set of liberal politicians.

UPDATE: I am late in getting this posted, for which I apologize. It’s been a busy day. Early this morning, the historian John Steele Gordon wrote to tell us that Northam was right! Here is his email:

Actually, the governor is right. The first blacks to arrive in Virginia, in 1619, were not sold as slaves, but as indentured servants. They had been sold in Africa to the Dutch captain, but he sold them in Virginia (mostly to the governor) as indentured servants. In other words, once they had worked off their indentures, they were free men, just like white indentured servants. Many subsequently became landowners, and even slave holders, themselves.

Because the death rate was so high in early Virginia (25 percent of immigrants did not live a year—once they did so, they were said to be “seasoned”) indentured servants made more economic sense as they were cheaper than slaves. It was not until the 1660’s that slavery was even recognized in Virginia law and indentured servants still far outnumbered slaves as late as the 1680’s.

See my book, An Empire of Wealth, pages 18-19.


I have read An Empire of Wealth–an excellent book–but had forgotten that detail. Is this what Northam had in mind? I suspect so, as he had the date right–1619. But he acquiesced meekly when Gayle King “corrected” him. And in the context of the current controversy, what was the point? The Civil War wasn’t fought over indentured servitude. And the fact that it made economic sense, for a time, for slaves purchased in Africa to be sold as indentured servants in Virginia is a historical footnote.

Of which we thank the fine historian John Steele Gordon for reminding us.

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