The Washington Post online this morning linked to a story about how Barack Obama, through his white mother, is related to America’s first slave, a Virginian named John Punch. Or at least that’s what the short headline on the homepage said. The story hedges a bit more: “he is most likely a descendant of one of the first documented African slaves in this country.” Now he is only “most likely” related, and Punch is not necessarily the first, just “one of the first,” and not one of the first slaves, but one of the first “documented” slaves.
And yet still the Post doesn’t have it quite right. Our entry on runaway servants and slaves tells what little is known about Punch. On July 9, 1640, the General Court of Virginia issued a decision that describes three servants belonging to Hugh Gwyn who ran away to Maryland and were captured there. Victor, “a Dutchman,” and James Gregory, “a Scotchman,” were each sentenced to be whipped, and four years were added to their indentures. The third servant, “a negro named John Punch,” was punished differently. Rather than take on additional years, he was made a slave for life. “Scholars have argued”—and here I’m quoting from our entry—”that this decision represents the first legal distinction between Europeans and Africans to be made by Virginia courts.”
As a rule of thumb, law does not dictate reality; it responds to it. Imagine that four hundred years from now, the Post found a copy of Loving v. Virginia and decided that Richard and Mildred Loving were one of the first interracial couples in Virginia. Hardly, right?
The point is, African slavery likely existed from the moment Africans first arrived in 1619—heck, they may have arrived even earlier! But it took awhile for the law to catch up to life as it was lived in Virginia, and John Punch represents one important step in that process.
Of course, it’s a better story if you can say something more dramatic and more definitive about John Punch—that he was America’s first slave, but I can’t imagine too many historians believe that.
PS: The writer Jonah Lehrer, who resigned yesterday from the New Yorker, made similar leaps as the Post, only with science and Bob Dylan: he fudged scholarly findings so that they offered up a more compelling narrative. But what’s more compelling: what’s true, or what we want to be true? And in case you’re interested, here’s an excellent review of Lehrer’s latest book written by a pair of scientists. Read the comments for Lehrer’s response.
RE THE POST’S TITLE: You grew up watching Punch and Judy, right?
IMAGES: Barack Obama and his mother, Ann Dunham; the first Africans at Jamestown, a drawing by Howard Pyle published in Harper’s Weekly in 1917 (Library of Virginia)