Isaiah to fight were to protect an immoral institution?

Isaiah Files

HST 105-005

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Mr. Chapman

January 30th,
2018

Slave Nation

            The American Revolution is the cornerstone of American
History. For generations, the citizens of the United States have been taught
that the revolution was brought about due to the colonist’s anger at the
British taxing them without proper representation of the colonist’s ideals in
British Parliament. But what if there was more to this story, and the reason
that some states chose to fight were to protect an immoral institution? This is
the basis of the book, Slave Nation,
by the Blumrosens which argues on the basis that it was a controversial decision
by England’s high court which led to the freedom of a young slave named
Somerset that was the motivating factor for southern colonies to fight in the
Revolutionary War1.
This assessment greatly challenges the beliefs held by many Americans as the
prevailing notion surrounding the American Revolution was that British
mistreatment of the colonists was the catalyst that motivated the colonists to
resist and fight back, not the heinous institution of slavery. Slavery is
widely thought to be the main reason why the American Civil War started, and to
discover that slavery helped play a role in convincing southern states to join
in the revolution against Britain is surprising to say the least. Over the
course of this paper, the prospects of the Somerset decision, the south’s
refusal to reject slavery, and the founding father’s views on the institution
of slavery will be used as pillars to support the argument that slavery was
major motivating factor in breaking away from England.

To
better understand how slavery played a part in the American Revolution, the
authors of the book point to the case of Somerset
v. Stewart, which ruled that that the institution of slavery was “so
odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law”2. This decision not only
led to the freedom of Somerset from his master, but eventually lead to the
abolishment of slavery in England itself, with many slaves “walking away from
their masters, who…, decided not to seek them out”3. This decision was not
only felt in England, but in the American colonies as well, particularly the
south who saw the decision as a threat to their way of life. Since English law
was the supreme law of the land, Parliament could rule that slavery was outlawed
in the British colonies and the southern plantation owners would lose their
source of income and status in society. This is highlighted in the book, where
it is stated that “The possibility of a British rejection of slavery anywhere
in the empire appalled the plantation owners and their representatives because
slavery was a necessary underpinning of their prosperity”4. Being a slave owner
afforded a person many benefits, including wealth, power, and influence among
the upper crust of colonial society. As stated in the book “the existence of
black slaves provided the poor white owner with a status that connected him
with his betters and distinguished him from those destined to labor forever” 5. Thereby, to take away
their source of status is to take away their very livelihood and will reduce
them in influence in the eyes of southern society. This threat, combined with
the growing tensions between the colonists and the British rule would
eventually motivate the south to join with the northern colonies and rebel
against English rule.

But
before 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 was
not as prevalent in the north as it was in the south, and the south had to be
sure that if they were to fight together with the north, that the north would
not interfere with southern affairs regarding slavery. This notion is further
supported in the book where it states that “Southern leaders would not join
with the North to seek revolution without assurance that slavery would be left
alone by the newly constituted free country”6. They found solidarity in
the presence of John Adams, one of the founding fathers and a delegate from
Massachusetts. He left it to the south to discuss the institution of slavery
with his own spoken words being that he “cannot comprehend this object. I must
leave it to you. I will vote for forcing no measure against your judgements”7 when in correspondence to
southern delegates. This is an interesting insight into the minds of the
founding fathers when discussing the issue of slavery because it was such a
sensitive issue at the time. It particular, it would make sense that the South
would be wary to the North’s views regarding slavery since they would want to
protect their own interests. Specifically, they would not rebel with the North
against the British until they were sure that once it was all over, they would
still have sovereignty over their land and their “property”. The use of property
is important since slaves were not thought of as people in the eyes of the
southern plantation owners, but as sources of labor to produce agricultural
goods and do with them as they pleased. But now that the South had some
indication of Northerner’s views on slavery, it made the prospect of revolution
more enticing.

Having
now found reasonable reassurance that the North would not interfere with the
South’s establishment of slavery, the colonists then turned towards drafting a
formal Declaration of Independence from British rule. In order to fill the
vacancy of power left by rejecting British rule, the colonists resolved to design
their own state constitutions. The one that is focused on heavily in the book
is the Virginia constitution that was drawn up by George Mason. Mason penned a
draft of the Virginia constitution that included the phrase “All men are born
equally free and independent and have certain natural rights of which they
cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity…”8. This presented a problem
to many of the Virginia delegates because they felt that this clause could be
applied to slaves in captivity. If all men were born equally free, then this
would fundamentally challenge the institution of slavery since slaves were
people and they were by extension born equally free. This angered the Virginia
delegates and the Virginia Convention who felt that their livelihood was once
again under threat which was especially surprising given the fact that Mason
was a fellow planter9. Thomas Jefferson while
drafting the Declaration of Independence, avoided the mistake that Mason made
by using less precise wording as he “knew how to make use of ambiguity when it
would better serve his objective”10. To this extent, he used
John Locke’s views of inalienable rights of life, liberty and property only he
changed 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 a
post-British American government was to be run as the South wanted to protect
the institution of slavery as it was so ingrained into southern life because,
as stated earlier, it granted the slave owner status, wealth, and power in
southern society. This is just another example of how slavery helped to contribute
to the American Revolution and the structuring of our government.

The
narrative painted in the book casts a dark shadow over the American Revolution
and lessens the nobility of the colonist’s rebelling about Britain, making it
appear that the Revolution was more about protecting self-interests than about
creating a country where everyone is treated equally. There is an aura of hypocrisy
when discussing the Declaration of Independence because it argued that all men
are created equal, but this was just not true at the time with millions of men
and women were held in captivity and forced to work for masters due to skin
color. John Adams, one of the framers of the constitution, helped to bury a
bill that would have freed slaves in Massachusetts11. This is just one example
of how the freedom and rights on slaves were not seen as a concern to the
members on Congress and how slaves were not truly seen as equals to the white
intellectuals of the colonial period. Even after the Revolutionary war was
fought and won, the issue of slavery continued to reverberate throughout the
walls of the newly established United States and how it was an eventual
contributor to the American Civil War.

The
book makes a point of stating that “We are the heirs to the American passion to
struggle with the relation between liberty and equality that began in
Philadelphia in September 1774″12. The issue of race and
equality is so ingrained into American culture that it is easy to see how it
affected the decision to seek independence from British rule. The main argument
that the Blumrosens are trying to make is that the institution of slavery had
more of an effect on the American Revolution than the general population may
know. The majority of Americans understand how slavery played into the Civil
War, but this book ascertains that it also played a hand in the events that
lead up to the United States that we know today. The main points that they use
to back up their claims are the Somerset case, the views of the intellectuals
and founding fathers that helped draft the declaration of independence, and the
idea that slavery was so engrained into southern society that to remove slavery
from the south was an affront to their very way of life. The main point that
piece of literature boils down to is that the contents of this book alters
public perceptions of the Revolution by offering a non-traditional view that
argues that slavery had a larger effect on this nation’s history than the public
may know. After reading this book, my belief is that the book makes a very
compelling argument as to why slavery was such a major influence onto the
American Revolution because the South’s economy was based in agriculture and
slavery provided white owners with cheap labor to cultivate the land to produce
goods to sell. Money is the driving force in a lot of American culture and to
rob a man of his ability to make money is seen as a personal attack on his
livelihood. Slavery was a major part of American history and this book helps to
illustrate the depths of its reach and how this foul establishment was
instrumental 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 decision
of Somerset v. Stewart (1772), found
in Blumrosen et al, Slave
Nation. 11.

3 From Peter Fryer Staying Power: The History of Black People
in Britain (1984), found in Blumrosen et al, Slave Nation. 14.

4 From Paul
Finkelman An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism,
and Comity (1981), found in Blumrosen
et al, Slave Nation. 25.

5 Blumrosen et al, Slave Nation. 26.

6 Blumrosen, Slave Nation. 84.

7 Blumrosen, Slave Nation. 88.

8 First Paragraph of
Peter Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Principles of
Government (1776), found in Blumrosen et al. Slave Nation. 125-126.

9 Blumrosen et al, Slave Nation. 126

10 Blumrosen et al, Slave Nation. 139.

11 Blumrosen et al, Slave Nation. 87.

12 Blumrosen et al. Slave Nation. 256.