Was Slavery a Cause of the Revolutionary War? Yes. (Book Review of SLAVE NATION)

Reasons for the Revolutionary War, as typically taught in American schools:

• The American people were fiercely independent. They wanted to do things for themselves. They didn’t want the British government, which was an ocean away, telling them how to live their lives.

• A combination of harsh taxes and the lack of an American voice in the British Parliament gave rise to the famous phrase “taxation without representation.”

• Americans started stockpiling guns and ammunition in violation of British laws. Their defense of such a stockpile led to the shots fired at Lexington and Concord and the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

On June 22, 1772, nearly a century before the slaves were freed in America, a British judge, with a single decision, brought about the conditions that would end slavery in England. His decision would have monumental consequences in the American colonies, leading up to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and beyond. Because of that ruling, history would forever be changed. This book is about that decision and the role of slavery in the founding of the United States.

– from Slave Nation: How Slavery United The Colonies And Sparked The American Revolution, by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen


“You can’t handle the truth.”
– from the 1992 movie A Few Good Men

Truth hurts. And this might be one of the more hurtful truths an American can learn: a major reason for the Revolutionary War was the protection of slavery.

slavenationfrontThat’s not something they teach in the schools. But our history lessons might look different in the future, if more people read the book Slave Nation: How Slavery United The Colonies And Sparked The American Revolution, by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen. (The book cover is to the left.)

The Blumrosens, former lawyers for the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, have a background in equal employment law. Over the course of their careers, they developed an interest in the historical causes of America’s racial inequities. The result is this book, which applies a lawyer’s insight into what they show to be a disturbing aspect of American history.

The main point of their book is that the American colonists-particularly Southern colonists-were afraid that the British government would abolish slavery. And that this fear was a major reason for the colonists’ desire to break away from Great Britain.

Here’s the problem with the way the Revolutionary War is taught: much of the story about the War centers on the northern colonies, particularly Massachusetts, where pivotal events such as the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre took place, and where the term “no taxation without representation” originated. And there’s no doubt that Massachusetts was a flashpoint in the coming war of independence.

But there were 13 original colonies, and the southern colonies had a unique interest of their own to worry about: protecting their “right” to keep slaves.

In June of 1772, the British courts issued judgement in what is called the Somerset Case. The case involved a runaway slave, James Somerset, who was the “property” of Charles Stewart, a customs officer from Boston, Massachusetts. Stewart and Somerset came to England from America in 1769. During his time in England, Somerset was exposed to the free black community there, and was inspired to escape his master in late 1771.

Somerset’s escape was not successful; he was caught, and was to be sent (for sale?) to the British colony of Jamaica. However, Somerset was defended and supported by abolitionists who went to court on his behalf, and prevented his being shipped to Jamaica. As noted in Wikipedia, “The lawyers… on behalf of Somerset… argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any law made by Parliament recognized the existence of slavery, and slavery was therefore illegal.”

The Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield, said in his ruling:

..The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

Although the Somerset decision was binding in England, it was not the law of the land in the American colonies… yet. However, the charters from Britain that created the various colonies contained so-called “repugnancy clauses” which said that the Americans could not make legislation that was contrary to British laws. And in 1766, Britain passed the Declaratory Act which gave the British parliament power over “all cases whatsoever” involving American laws.

This made Southerners concerned, for two reasons. First, they were worried that American slaves would hear about the Somerset decision, and try to escape to England where they would be declared free per the decision’s precedent. But even more, they were worried that slavery in America was endangered, as explained in the book:

The possibility of a British rejection of slavery anywhere in the empire appalled the (southern) plantation owners… because slavery was a necessary underpinning of their prosperity. Slavery was the foundation of the economic and social environment that their leaders represented and protected.

The riches that flowed from slave ownership were threefold: the value of the slaves themselves, both as capital and as security for loans; the value of the product they produced, including more slaves; and the value of the land they cleared and planted.

Slavery in the southern colonies made white slave owners the wealthiest group on the mainland…

The importance of slavery to the southern colonists had its roots in the pre-Revolutionary period. As a result of a rebellion by poor whites in 1676, Virginia shifted its labor force from a mix of black slaves and white indentured servants to slaves alone.

Most whites owned one or two slaves, not the much larger numbers owned by the major planters. But these few slaves were crucial to their masters in easing the daily labor necessary for an agricultural existence. For example, owning slaves enabled white children to have some schooling, or enabled ill or disabled family members to bear lighter loads.

All of these considerations combined to make southern political lawyers anxious about their property in slaves that was threatened by the Somerset decision. Taxation might have taken some of their property; Somerset threatened to take it all.

The book goes on to tell how major decisions made by the Americans-such as the agreement to break from British rule, the wording of the Declaration of Independence, and the formulation of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution-were all done in a manner that protected the right of the South to maintain slavery.

For example: in early drafts of the Declaration of Independence, the language that said “All men are born equally free and independent” was changed by Thomas Jefferson to “All men were created equal” to prevent the implication that slaves should be free.

In the end, though, the Revolutionary War did not prevent the conflict over slavery from coming to a head; it merely delayed it.

As the book notes, many in the North (and some Southerners, too) abhorred slavery, but compromises were made continually with the Southerners for the sake of unity. While much of the enmity toward slavery was based on religious and moral grounds, some of it was based on economics: many felt that slavery undercut the labor market for white men. Over time, anti-slavery sentiment grew to a boil.

Eventually, the Civil War would decide the issue of slavery in America. (And I am personally very happy that the North won… I’d rather be writing this blog than picking cotton.)

It will be interesting to see if the book and others like it eventually spur a change in the way that American history is taught. I looked at several reviews of the book, and one said it contains too much “circumstantial evidence.” That is: some of the intentions of the people (including, very prominently, Thomas Jefferson) who made the decisions mentioned in the book are inferred, as opposed to being proven by actual comments.

My own feeling is, the authors make a quite convincing case. This book is well researched, and even if the evidence is sometimes circumstantial, it is extensive and compelling.

But clearly: this is a very controversial proposition that the authors are making, and something this different from mainstream history will of course come under scrutiny. And that’s not a problem: I hope that the historian community does give this the consideration and investigation it deserves. And even more, if consensus is reached that agrees with the Blumrosens, I would hope that our history books are changed accordingly, no matter what kind of light it shines on our nation’s founding fathers. Just let the truth be told.

UPDATE: This entry was cross-posted at DailyKos.com, where a number of interesting comments were posted.

5 thoughts on “Was Slavery a Cause of the Revolutionary War? Yes. (Book Review of SLAVE NATION)

  1. Lunchcountersitin: I will have to read this book. Does it talk about how SOMMERSETT came to the U.S. via Jude Lemuel Shaw (Herman Melville’s father-in-law) who held in a Massachusetts decision that since slavery was not authorized in Massachusetts, slaves who came to Massachusetts were automatically free. I believe, if memory serves, that his decision is what inspired the Fugitive Slave Act and all the rage and rescues of jailed slaves afterwards. Note how easy it was for the slaveholders to exercise federal power over state rights then. I guess it all depends on whose ox is gored. Thank God, Romeny lost or we’d all, white and black, be competiting with Chinese and Indonesians for wages sooner rather than later. I agree with Lincoln: This nation [planet] cannot endure half slave and half free.

  2. absurd on its face; britannia passed transparent loop hole filled legislation that allowed slavery to continue in its colonies until the end of the 19th century, then replaced it with indentured servitude. some colonies tried to ban slavery before the revolution and were reversed by the crown because it was protecting its royal african company; half the colonies banned slavery by 1804; even the premise of the book is a farce.

    • You’re right. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davies – they loved slaves and worked tirelessly to end the institution. The price of tea is a perfectly good reason for rich, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men to put on a French King’s uniform and invite thousands of French and Spanish royalist troops to kill fellow Englishmen. What happened to that Liberty loving French King?
      Your denial is preventing the United States from becoming an even great nation.

    • Sadly, there does happen to be *some* truth in your argument here: the Loyalists were hardly immune from pro-slavery sentiments, either-and in fact, for the most part, British abolitionism really only took off as a phenomenon *after* the Revolution had ended.

      That said, though, it does seem rather unfair to the Blumrosens to call their whole book a farce: they do provide some interesting information & draw some interesting conclusions, even if perhaps some of said info and conclusions may be flawed, perhaps.

      In any case, feel free to agree or disagree as you see fit.

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