Isaiah FilesHST 105-005Mr.
ChapmanJanuary 30th,2018Slave Nation The American Revolution is the cornerstone of AmericanHistory. For generations, the citizens of the United States have been taughtthat the revolution was brought about due to the colonist’s anger at theBritish taxing them without proper representation of the colonist’s ideals inBritish Parliament. But what if there was more to this story, and the reasonthat some states chose to fight were to protect an immoral institution? This isthe basis of the book, Slave Nation,by the Blumrosens which argues on the basis that it was a controversial decisionby England’s high court which led to the freedom of a young slave namedSomerset that was the motivating factor for southern colonies to fight in theRevolutionary War1.This assessment greatly challenges the beliefs held by many Americans as theprevailing notion surrounding the American Revolution was that Britishmistreatment of the colonists was the catalyst that motivated the colonists toresist and fight back, not the heinous institution of slavery. Slavery iswidely thought to be the main reason why the American Civil War started, and todiscover that slavery helped play a role in convincing southern states to joinin the revolution against Britain is surprising to say the least.
Over thecourse of this paper, the prospects of the Somerset decision, the south’srefusal to reject slavery, and the founding father’s views on the institutionof slavery will be used as pillars to support the argument that slavery wasmajor motivating factor in breaking away from England.Tobetter understand how slavery played a part in the American Revolution, theauthors of the book point to the case of Somersetv. Stewart, which ruled that that the institution of slavery was “soodious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law”2. This decision not onlyled to the freedom of Somerset from his master, but eventually lead to theabolishment of slavery in England itself, with many slaves “walking away fromtheir masters, who…, decided not to seek them out”3. This decision was notonly felt in England, but in the American colonies as well, particularly thesouth who saw the decision as a threat to their way of life. Since English lawwas the supreme law of the land, Parliament could rule that slavery was outlawedin the British colonies and the southern plantation owners would lose theirsource of income and status in society. This is highlighted in the book, whereit is stated that “The possibility of a British rejection of slavery anywherein the empire appalled the plantation owners and their representatives becauseslavery was a necessary underpinning of their prosperity”4.
Being a slave ownerafforded a person many benefits, including wealth, power, and influence amongthe upper crust of colonial society. As stated in the book “the existence ofblack slaves provided the poor white owner with a status that connected himwith his betters and distinguished him from those destined to labor forever” 5. Thereby, to take awaytheir source of status is to take away their very livelihood and will reducethem in influence in the eyes of southern society.
This threat, combined withthe growing tensions between the colonists and the British rule wouldeventually motivate the south to join with the northern colonies and rebelagainst English rule.Butbefore the south could work together with the north to overthrow the British,they had to be sure of the north’s intuitions and views on slavery. Slavery wasnot as prevalent in the north as it was in the south, and the south had to besure that if they were to fight together with the north, that the north wouldnot interfere with southern affairs regarding slavery. This notion is furthersupported in the book where it states that “Southern leaders would not joinwith the North to seek revolution without assurance that slavery would be leftalone by the newly constituted free country”6. They found solidarity inthe presence of John Adams, one of the founding fathers and a delegate fromMassachusetts. He left it to the south to discuss the institution of slaverywith his own spoken words being that he “cannot comprehend this object. I mustleave it to you. I will vote for forcing no measure against your judgements”7 when in correspondence tosouthern delegates.
This is an interesting insight into the minds of thefounding fathers when discussing the issue of slavery because it was such asensitive issue at the time. It particular, it would make sense that the Southwould be wary to the North’s views regarding slavery since they would want toprotect their own interests. Specifically, they would not rebel with the Northagainst the British until they were sure that once it was all over, they wouldstill have sovereignty over their land and their “property”.
The use of propertyis important since slaves were not thought of as people in the eyes of thesouthern plantation owners, but as sources of labor to produce agriculturalgoods and do with them as they pleased. But now that the South had someindication of Northerner’s views on slavery, it made the prospect of revolutionmore enticing. Havingnow found reasonable reassurance that the North would not interfere with theSouth’s establishment of slavery, the colonists then turned towards drafting aformal Declaration of Independence from British rule. In order to fill thevacancy of power left by rejecting British rule, the colonists resolved to designtheir own state constitutions. The one that is focused on heavily in the bookis the Virginia constitution that was drawn up by George Mason. Mason penned adraft of the Virginia constitution that included the phrase “All men are bornequally free and independent and have certain natural rights of which theycannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity…”8. This presented a problemto many of the Virginia delegates because they felt that this clause could beapplied to slaves in captivity. If all men were born equally free, then thiswould fundamentally challenge the institution of slavery since slaves werepeople and they were by extension born equally free.
This angered the Virginiadelegates and the Virginia Convention who felt that their livelihood was onceagain under threat which was especially surprising given the fact that Masonwas a fellow planter9. Thomas Jefferson whiledrafting the Declaration of Independence, avoided the mistake that Mason madeby using less precise wording as he “knew how to make use of ambiguity when itwould better serve his objective”10. To this extent, he usedJohn Locke’s views of inalienable rights of life, liberty and property only hechanged property to pursuit of happiness as to make the wording less debatable.Once again, the issue of slavery was a point of contention when deciding how apost-British American government was to be run as the South wanted to protectthe institution of slavery as it was so ingrained into southern life because,as stated earlier, it granted the slave owner status, wealth, and power insouthern society. This is just another example of how slavery helped to contributeto the American Revolution and the structuring of our government. Thenarrative painted in the book casts a dark shadow over the American Revolutionand lessens the nobility of the colonist’s rebelling about Britain, making itappear that the Revolution was more about protecting self-interests than aboutcreating a country where everyone is treated equally. There is an aura of hypocrisywhen discussing the Declaration of Independence because it argued that all menare created equal, but this was just not true at the time with millions of menand women were held in captivity and forced to work for masters due to skincolor. John Adams, one of the framers of the constitution, helped to bury abill that would have freed slaves in Massachusetts11.
This is just one exampleof how the freedom and rights on slaves were not seen as a concern to themembers on Congress and how slaves were not truly seen as equals to the whiteintellectuals of the colonial period. Even after the Revolutionary war wasfought and won, the issue of slavery continued to reverberate throughout thewalls of the newly established United States and how it was an eventualcontributor to the American Civil War. Thebook makes a point of stating that “We are the heirs to the American passion tostruggle with the relation between liberty and equality that began inPhiladelphia in September 1774″12. The issue of race andequality is so ingrained into American culture that it is easy to see how itaffected the decision to seek independence from British rule. The main argumentthat the Blumrosens are trying to make is that the institution of slavery hadmore of an effect on the American Revolution than the general population mayknow. The majority of Americans understand how slavery played into the CivilWar, but this book ascertains that it also played a hand in the events thatlead up to the United States that we know today. The main points that they useto back up their claims are the Somerset case, the views of the intellectualsand founding fathers that helped draft the declaration of independence, and theidea that slavery was so engrained into southern society that to remove slaveryfrom the south was an affront to their very way of life.
The main point thatpiece of literature boils down to is that the contents of this book alterspublic perceptions of the Revolution by offering a non-traditional view thatargues that slavery had a larger effect on this nation’s history than the publicmay know. After reading this book, my belief is that the book makes a verycompelling argument as to why slavery was such a major influence onto theAmerican Revolution because the South’s economy was based in agriculture andslavery provided white owners with cheap labor to cultivate the land to producegoods to sell. Money is the driving force in a lot of American culture and torob a man of his ability to make money is seen as a personal attack on hislivelihood. Slavery was a major part of American history and this book helps toillustrate the depths of its reach and how this foul establishment wasinstrumental in the founding of this country. 1 Alfred W.Blumrosen, Ruth G. Blumrosen & Steven Blumrosen, Slave Nation (Naperville, Sourcebooks, Inc., 2005), 1.
2 Lord Mansfield’s decisionof Somerset v. Stewart (1772), foundin Blumrosen et al, SlaveNation. 11.3 From Peter Fryer Staying Power: The History of Black Peoplein Britain (1984), found in Blumrosen et al, Slave Nation. 14.4 From PaulFinkelman An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism,and Comity (1981), found in Blumrosenet al, Slave Nation.
25.5 Blumrosen et al, Slave Nation. 26.6 Blumrosen, Slave Nation. 84.7 Blumrosen, Slave Nation.
88.8 First Paragraph ofPeter Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Principles ofGovernment (1776), found in Blumrosen et al. Slave Nation. 125-126.9 Blumrosen et al, Slave Nation. 12610 Blumrosen et al, Slave Nation.
139.11 Blumrosen et al, Slave Nation. 87.12 Blumrosen et al. Slave Nation.