In the summer of 2019, the New York Times Magazine published a series of essays on the role of slavery and racism in American history it called the “1619 Project”. Named for the year in which the first Africans were sold in Virginia, the 1619 Project became a target for a group of renowned historians who took particular aim at its characterization of the American Revolution.
Lead essayist Nikole Hannah-Jones re-centered the history of America through slavery. Among all of Hannah-Jones’ claims, perhaps none riled up this group of historians more than her contention that “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Apparently, this breach in the founding mythology was worth defending and they rushed to repel the assault.
A number of distinguished historians of early America, Sean Wilentz and James McPherson of Princeton, Gordon Wood of Brown, Victoria Bynum of Texas State, and James Oakes of CUNY, wrote a protest to the New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, in which they wrote: “On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true…”
Defending his authors, Silverstein noted that a number of noted scholars had documented a series of events that supported the contention that slavery was a factor in the American Revolution, including the ruling of the British High Court in the 1772 case of Somerset v. Stewart that slavery could not be enforced on the English mainland.
Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, eager to have the last word, fired off a more detailed critique to the Atlantic magazine, misleadingly entitled “A Matter of Facts”, that he largely devoted to downplaying the Somerset episode and arguing that English policies never actually posed a threat to American slavery. To do this, Wilentz employs a tactic of specificity: making it appear that he is merely correcting the newspaper of record when he is actually challenging the framing of facts, not their existence.
Wilentz attempts to paint a picture of patriot disinterest in the whole Somerset business: “In the entire slaveholding South, a total of six newspapers—one in Maryland, two in Virginia, and three in South Carolina—published only 15 reports about Somerset, virtually all of them very brief. Coverage was spotty: The two South Carolina newspapers that devoted the most space to the case didn’t even report its outcome.”
Wilentz’s statement is both designed to obscure the reality of an intense journalistic reaction to the Somerset decision and is categorically untrue. The South Carolina Gazette, which is one of the two newspapers that devoted the most space to the case (notably Wilentz doesn’t note that one of the Gazette’s articles ran to some 1400 words), in fact did report the outcome of the trial on Sept. 10, 1772: “Yesterday morning came on at ten o’clock, in the Court of King’s-Bench, the judgment of the Negro cause, when Lord Mansfield spoke for the rest of the Judges; he said, that every slave brought into this country ought to be free…”
Note how Wilentz only mentions southern newspapers, as if the American revolution didn’t exist north of the Chesapeake. Had he included the northern press, he would have been forced to acknowledge that a number of papers carried extensive and lengthy reports on the case that included much commentary. The scholar who has produced the most comprehensive study of the colonial American press during the Revolution, Patricia Bradley, found that 22 of 24 of the papers she surveyed carried news of the Somerset case (out of a total of 32 news outlets in America–the others not surveyed because a full year’s run of their publications do not exist). Bradley concluded, “…the patriot press manipulated the issue of slavery in the American colonies to advance the separation of the colonies from Great Britain.”
Sean Wilentz, in his most recent book on slavery in the Constitution, briefly mentions Somerset and in his footnotes writes “On American slaveholders’ reactions to the Somerset principle, see Van Cleve, Slaveholders’ Union, 31-40. More broadly on Somerset’s impact, see William M. Wiecek, The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism…40-61.” These sources don’t actually dismiss Somerset as Wilentz now does. Van Cleve writes the following on p. 33: “The political impact of Somerset was not limited to England…The decision ignited a substantial controversy in the American colonies. The wider political implications of Somerset were even broader and more important than its direct legal effects.” Wiecek observes, “The Somerset decision and the arguments it spawned were promptly disseminated in the colonies…. Somerset’s ideas flowed into the mainstream of policy debate during the Revolution…”
Among the other “false assertions” Wilentz claims Nicole-Harris makes is that “By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere”. Wilentz refutes the idea that there was a significant antislavery movement in England and writes, “apart from the activity of the pioneering abolitionist Granville Sharp, Britain was hardly conflicted at all in 1776 over its involvement in the slave system.” In making such a claim, Wilentz is both splitting hairs and contradicting the statements made by the scholar who just gave the prestigious Philip Roth lecture. That scholar said, “By the mid-1770s, in the American colonies as well as in Britain and France, a significant number of reformers and intellectuals had come to regard American slavery as pure evil.” Sean Wilentz doesn’t have to travel far to engage in debate with that scholar, he has only to look in the mirror as those remarks are his.
Unsatisfied with the protests he had already lodged, Brown University’s Gordon Wood also penned a rejoinder to New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein’s defense of the 1619 Project. This time, rather than cite historical facts that would support his argument, Wood trots out his credentials: “I have spent my career studying the American Revolution and cannot accept the view that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”
Wood is correct that there is no known Patrick Henry style speech of a colonist at the time proclaiming, ‘Give me slavery or give me death!’ but there is a tall pile of letters, speeches and resolutions that reveal the panic the prospect that England might free American slaves caused. Soon after the Somerset ruling effectively ended slavery in England, a New York correspondent wrote that Lord Mansfield’s ruling “will occasion a greater ferment in America (particularly in the islands) than the Stamp Act itself.” What Somerset clearly did was predispose, rightly or wrongly, many Americans into believing that England was a threat to the slave system that was at the core of their economy and society.
In 1770, Sir William Draper toured the troubled American colonies and upon his return to London published his insightful observations of the American rebellion in 1774 in a pamphlet entitled Thoughts of a Traveller upon Our American Disputes. Though Draper urged a policy of conciliation he also warned that if the Americans should try and turn Crown soldiers against the throne, England should do likewise. “…if they rob us of those…Proclaim Freedom to their Negroes; then how long would they be a people? They would soon cry out for pardon, and render unto Caesar the Things which are Caesar’s.”
Draper’s proposal ignited chatter among the political class in England and news of its popularity traveled quickly to America. In November of 1774, James Madison wrote to his Pennsylvania friend William Bradford and told him of a curious plot among some Virginia slaves that was just uncovered: “If America & Britain should come to an hostile rupture I am afraid an Insurrection among the slaves may & will be promoted.” Bradford then agreed with confirmed Madison’s fear and replied that he had heard of similar plots while in a Philadelphia coffee-house where a letter was read aloud that “mentioned the design of administration to pass an act (in case of a rupture) declaring [“]all Slaves & Servants free that would take arms against the Americans.”
That same year, Samuel Johnson in his widely discussed pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny proposed freeing Americans’ slaves if they didn’t knuckle under to Parliamentary authority. “If their obstinacy continues without actual hostilities…It has been proposed, that the slaves should be set free, an act which surely the lovers of liberty cannot but commend.”
Speaking on the floor of Parliament, Edmund Burke discussed a proposal to free American slaves as a means of securing the rebels surrender in March of 1775. At this point, Burke, who would later be a critic of such a policy of “a general enfranchisement of their slaves” admitted he saw both pros and cons in it.
Well before the first open clash between southerners and their governors occurred in April of 1775, talk of English rulers aiming to foment a slave rebellion was widespread. When Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, ordered his troops to secretly remove the stores of gunpowder from the Williamsburg armory to his anchored fleet, colonists presumed this was a means of disarming them so that they could not put down a slave uprising. As early as the summer of 1775, American newspapers were circulating rumors that British policymakers were plotting to foment a slave uprising to drown the colonials in blood. The Virginia Gazette published a letter from London (Aug. 11, 1775) that reported that “ministerial tools” were plotting to use “the negroes, who were to be emancipated to slaughter their masters.” At the same time Benjamin Franklin wrote to his friend Jonathon Shipley: “The humane Sir W: Draper, who had been hospitably entertained in every one of our Colonies, proposes, in his Papers called the Traveller to excite the Domestic Slaves, you have sold us, to cut their Master’s Throats.”
On October 15, 1775, the former governor of South Carolina who was now a member of the House of Lords, Lord Lyttelton, rose in debate and advocated encouraging a slave rebellion in the American South: “He intimated, if a few regiments were sent there, the negroes would rise, and embrue their hands in the blood of their masters.”
Some of Lyttelton’s fellow lords huffed and condemned such reckless talk, one saying the “scheme he alludes to, of calling for the slaves, is too black and horrid to be adopted…” But a month later Lord North himself rose and justified the actions of General Carleton in doing just that. “As to the means of conducting the war, he declared there never was any idea of employing the negroes or the Indians, until the Americans themselves had first applied to them: that general Carleton did then apply to them; and even then, it was only for the defense of his own province.”
About the same time a North Carolina planter received a letter from a business associate in London warning him to sell out and leave because he had overheard a well-connected minister, “that all slaves on the Continent would be seized as forfeited by the Provinces, and sold in the French and Spanish Islands, the profits arising to reimburse the great expense of Ships, Troops, &.c., sent to America.” This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Independence took a year of legislative struggle to win and was achieved in a series of incremental steps. In July of 1775, almost a year to the day prior to declaring independence, the Continental Congress sent a lengthy declaration to the Crown explaining why it was finally and officially taking up arms in resistance. Naturally, this declaration recounted the closing of Boston harbor, General Gage’s firing on the Lexington and Concord militias, and ended with the muted, even euphemistic description of the plot to turn their slaves against them. “we have but too much reason to apprehend, that Schemes have been formed to excite domestic Enemies against us.”
In March of 1776, Congress declared their right to emit letters of marque to pirates, granting them a license to prey on British shipping. To justify this drastic move, this document cited a number of oppressive actions of the Crown, including “instigating Negroes to murder their Masters…” Then in May a convention of leading Virginians instructed its delegates in Congress to call for independence, and listed quite centrally as one of the reasons that the King “is carrying on a piratical and savage war against us tempting our slaves by every artifice to resort to him, and training and employing them against their masters. In this state of extreme danger, we have no alternative left but an abject submission to the will of those over-bearing tyrants, or total separation from the crown and government of Great Britain…”
Tom Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet credited with tipping wavering American opinion toward independence, urged Americans to quit Britain saying, “There are thousands and tens of thousands who would think it glorious to expel from the continent that barbarous and hellish power which hath stirred up the Indians and negroes to destroy us.”
Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence included the following article: “by prompting our negroes to rise in arms among us; those very negroes whom by an inhuman use of his negative he hath <from time to time> refused us permission to exclude by law”.
Jefferson’s fellow Congressmen were uncomfortable with this construction on many levels, they did not wish to implicitly condemn either slavery or the slave trade and they did not wish to highlight their fears of slave insurrection. After they were finished striking out and editing Jefferson’s draft, all that was left was the phrase, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…” that did not mention slavery or negroes at all.
Gordon Wood also complains that efforts to remap America’s origins, like the 1619 Project, erases the noble labors of white liberals. “How could slavery be worth preserving for someone like John Adams, who hated slavery and owned no slaves?… Ignoring his and other northerners’ roles in the decision for independence can only undermine the credibility of your project with the general public.”
In fact, revolutionary leaders like Adams did not see the war as an opportunity to end slavery, but quite the other way around. Any steps taken to weaken slavery during that time of crisis was a threat to winning the war and erecting a new nation. In 1777, the Massachusetts House considered a bill to end slavery in the state. James Warren, who was one of three members of a committee that considered the proposal, mentioned in a letter to John Adams that he and the other committee members killed the bill out of concern for the unity of the nation.
We have had a Bill before us for freeing the Negroes, which is ordered to lie least if passed into An Act it should have A Bad Effect on the Union of the Colonies. A Letter to Congress on that subject was proposed and reported, but I Endeavoured to divert that, supposing it would Embarrass, and perhaps be Attended with worse Consequences than passing the Act.
Adams then wrote back praising Warren’s move, “The Bill for freeing the Negroes, I hope will sleep for a Time. We have Causes enough of Jealousy Discord and Division, and this Bill will certainly add to the Number.”
Here was the the paradox of the antislavery feelings of Founding Father like Adams and Jefferson and the rest. While hating slavery, their priorities never wavered from what was best for and in the interests of white people. Ending slavery could wait until the revolution was won, then ending the slave trade could wait for twenty years, then northern emancipation could be phased in over decades, and through it all the hope was that any people of color freed from their chains would be exiled to another continent or at least moved to the outer fringes of the frontier. Certainly, they were never considered fully members of whatever racist republic was being constructed. Edmund Jenings, one of John Adams longest and most prolific correspondents over his lifetime, offered his definition republicanism to Adams soon after Yorktown: “all Citizens in Republicks are Equal, altho one may have more Negroes than Another…” Jenings never knew how apt his description of the foundation of American democracy was.