Slavery and the American Revolution

The 1619 Project is the New York Times’ attempt to make Americans view their country as evil. Its race-centric view of American history has drawn criticism from both sides of the political spectrum of academia.

Much of the criticism has centered around the Project’s claim that the American Revolution was, in significant part, the result of a desire to preserve slavery in America. The short answer to this claim is that “slavery in the Colonies faced no immediate threat from Great Britain, so colonists wouldn’t have needed to secede to protect it.”

Nor, if the goal of the Revolution had been to preserve slavery, would the Declaration of Independence — the statement of the reasons for rebelling — have included language inconsistent with the institution of slavery. The signers understood the inconsistency, and were not into irony.

It happens that I have re-read two old books about the Revolutionary and Confederation period. The books are: The American Revolution by John Richard Alden and The New Nation by Merrill Jensen.

Both books include a discussion of slavery and the Revolution. Both argue that Britain was an obstacle to limiting slavery in America, something many Americans, including leaders of the revolutionary movement, wanted to do.

Here is what Alden wrote:

The Revolutionary generation, seeking to assert the natural rights of mankind, could not but be conscience-stricken when it considered the lot in America of some of the children of Nature’s God — the Negroes, who composed one-fifth of the total population and half of that of South Carolina. Almost all of the Negroes were slaves. . . .

Slavery, then as later, had its horrors, the worst of which was the traffic in human bodies between Africa and America. That brutal commerce had aroused indignation before the war, and the importation of slaves had been halted in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, but the British government and its representatives had prevented the passage of similar laws in the royal colonies.

When Britain and British officials could no longer interfere, American legislatures, with Delaware leading the way in 1776, undertook to put an end to the traffic. During and immediately after the war, the introduction from foreign lands of enslaved blacks was forbidden in all states, save for South Carolina and Georgia. Even in the far South, there was much sentiment in favor of such action, and importation was temporarily forbidden in South Carolina in 1787 and again in 1788.

The patriots did not content themselves merely with endeavors to destroy the oceanic slave trade. In the Spring of 1775, there was formed in Philadelphia the first antislavery society in America [note: with Benjamin Franklin in a lead role], and many patriots, Conservative and Radical, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Patrick Henry, and Horatio Gates, were soon afterward urging the outlawing of Negro bondage.

Economic interest, ignorance, feelings of racial superiority, and fear of the consequences of emancipation usually postponed or prevented action. Nevertheless, a few Negroes received their freedom in return for honorable service in the war; and many thousands obtained it by manumission, made relatively easy by law in Virginia in 1782 and also by other states in the South.

Moreover, Pennsylvania provided for gradual emancipation by a law of 1780; and statements of the Massachusetts Bill of Rights of the same year, including one which declared that “All men are born free and equal,” were construed three years later by the highest court of that state to mean that slavery was outlawed. Certain other Northern States soon followed the examples of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Others did not act until after the close of the century. In the South, however, where there were both proportionately and absolutely more slaves, sentiment began to swing after the war toward protecting that institution.

(Emphasis added)

Jensen, who was a “Progressive School” historian in the tradition of Charles Beard, says basically the same thing:

Negro slavery had long been opposed in the colonies. . .Freedom from Britain made it possible to act, for the British government had consistently supported slavery and the slave trade. In the decade just before the Revolution several of the colonies, including some in the South, made serious efforts to stop the trade only to have all legislation vetoed in London. . . .

Within a few years after 1775, either in constitutions or in legislation, the new states acted against slavery. Within a decade all states except South Carolina and Georgia had passed some form of legislation to stop the slave trade.

Freeing the slaves was much more difficult except in those states where there were very few of them. Vermont [note: a “Republic” at the time] abolished slavery in her Constitution in 1777. In 1780 the Massachusetts Constitution declared that all men were born equal and endowed with freedom. It was at once agreed that this part of the bill of rights freed all slaves held in the state, and the state supreme court agreed. New Hampshire followed the lead in its Constitution of 1784.

Other states such as Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island passed acts for piecemeal abolition. . .By 1800 Pennsylvania had less than 2,000 slaves left as a result of her gradual emancipation law and the watchful vigilance of the [Philadelphia anti-slavery society]. . . .

There was important opposition to slavery in the South during and after the Revolution. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Patrick Henry all hoped that slavery could be ended in some fashion. They were in the minority, although Virginia did pass laws making it easier to free slaves. Further to the south there was bitter opposition to the idea of abolition and to any restriction on the slave trade.

Tolerance soon disappeared from Virginia as well and the law making it easy to free slaves was repealed and petitions for abolition were ignored. Economics and idealism met head on and the former won an easy victory.

(Emphasis added)

Jensen also says that during the Revolutionary War, Virginia slaveholders lost approximately 30,000 slaves to the British, and the slaves were not returned after the war. South Carolina slaveholders lost about 25,000.

When these colonies severed ties with Britain, they could not know that losing slaves would be a consequence. However, inviting war with the most powerful nation in the world is not well calculated to preserve stability, protect existing arrangements and institutions, and safeguard property. The patriots surely understood this.

Alden and Jensen wrote more than half a century ago, without the benefit of much recent research. However, I trust Alden and Jensen, even with less material, to write better history on this subject than some modern historians with axes to grind.

In any event, as noted, modern liberal historians reject the notion that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. Alden and Jensen show how ludicrous that thesis is.

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