Slavery and the Making of America, by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, is a comprehensive, insightful survey of slavery’s role in shaping America between 1619 and the Civil War. The companion volume for a PBS mini-series, it synthesizes numerous recent studies of slavery and examines the institution from the slaves’ complex point of view. The authors bring a deep understanding of the black experience to this work, having written at least three prior works about black history.
James Oliver Horton, himself an African American, received his doctorate in history from Brandeis and teaches history and American Studies at George Washington University. His wife, Lois E. Horton, is a Brandeis-trained sociologist and professor of sociology and Cultural Studies at George Mason University. Both are well stepped in their subject and have extensive experience teaching and studying the subject. The book concerns slavery and the slave experience in America from 1619, when Africans were brought across the Atlantic to work Virginia’s plantations, to the Civil War and beyond.
It emphasizes blacks’ role in helping shape American society and culture; as stated in the introduction, “African slaves were not simply passive laborers. They brought many new cultures to America, and their religion, music, language, values, and skills helped shape America and its unique blended culture . . . [and] developed a deep commitment to liberty” (Horton and Horton 7). They depict slavery as a deeply oppressive system that forced African Americans to adapt, persevere, and subvert it at every opportunity, and they present a picture of slaves not as passive victims but as active resisters and survivors.
The work’s temporal scope focuses on the period from 1619 to 1865, though it moves beyond these in pursuit of a fuller picture of African-American life. The first chapter offers broad but brief history of slavery in Africa and Europe to better explain how the American version (which by 1700 became lifelong, hereditary, and based on race) differed from its Old World counterparts, while the last explores blacks’ continuing struggle against discrimination after the Civil War. In addition, it traces the development of trade between Africans and Europeans, which gradually moved in the latter’s favor and fed the slave trade for over two centuries.
In terms of subject, the work discusses not simply slavery but the elements that helped form African American culture; different tribes were forced to mix in America, , where they “built a syncretic African American culture that preserved important parts of their African heritage while adapting to . . . their situation in America” (Horton and Horton 42). Much of the work follows a straightforward chronological form, showing how slavery evolved (and became more insidious and oppressive) in tandem with the United States, which paid increasing attention to the contradictions between its pursuit of liberty and devotion to slaveholding.
The Hortons study slavery as an evolving institution which Africans constantly resisted and subverted by any available means, even while they contributed to America’s economic and geographical expansion. Their treatment shows deep understanding of slaves’ situation but wisely refrains from depicting them as pathetic victims. The book also shows how slavery changed to suit America’s changing circumstances; it was never a monolith but a living thing, shaped by economics (especially with cotton’s rise after 1790), white paranoia, black resistance, and growing antislavery sentiment.
(Though they pay scant attention to abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, they compensate by discussing blacks’ role in their own liberation. ) Because Slavery and the Making of America is a synthesis of recent scholarship rather than a work of original research, the Hortons rely mostly on secondary sources about slavery, most written since the 1950s, when scholars recognized that slavery was by no means benign. The introduction gives the reader a brief but helpful historiography, discussing how scholars’ views of American slavery have evolved and expanded over the last century.
They also incorporate numerous primary sources, mainly slave narratives from the nineteenth century, when sources by black authors were presumably more plentiful, among them works by Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and “Box” Brown. The authors cite their sources rather heavily, leaving little doubt that they owe a considerable debt to the scholars whose works form the body of work regarding America’s “peculiar institution. ”
In addition to its masterful use of source materials, the book’s style is one of its strongest assets. The work is highly readable, using clear, accessible prose that does not bog down the reader in its many facts; instead, they present the history of American slavery as a sort of epic story, in which African Americans are clearly the heroes in their own cause and prevail despite the many obstacles they faced. There are no abstract theories or dense arguments in this volume; indeed, the Hortons are not breaking new ground.
Nonetheless, their work is a well-informed, well-crafted overview that emphasizes the “big picture” without sacrificing accuracy or relevance. Also, because it was written to accompany a PBS documentary mini-series, it engages and carries the reader’s attention much like the program would capture a viewer’s interest and attention. Slavery and the Making of America is a highly readable, well-written work that combines the best contemporary scholarship about slavery’s history in the United States.
Concise yet broad, it offers the reader an informative panorama and depicts its subjects not simply as victims of an unfair, oppressive social system, but as survivors with a strong group consciousness and as active catalysts in helping shape the young nation and, ultimately, their own liberty. Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.