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GOP Still Wants to Pretend the Preservation of Slavery Wasn’t a Major Reason for the American Revolution

Americans during the Battle of Long Island, 1776 – Public Domain

Another day, another casus belli for the GOP’s endless Culture War.

This time it is President Joe Biden’s desire to bring America’s history of slavery out of the shadows using, in part, the 1619 Project. Naturally, Biden’s desires did not sit well with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who has asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to order schools to stop teaching the New York Times’ Pulitzer-Prize winning history project.

McConnell and his colleagues objected to one specific mention in the 1619 Project that suggests the American Revolution was fought, in part, to maintain slavery.

To conservatives this amounts to heresy. It runs counter to the official story line, which says that the colonists—Benjamin Franklin, in particular—were pissed off about taxes and autocratic rule from Britain. In other words, that a colonial empire was behaving like a colonial empire.

This idea—that the protection of the institution of slavery was instrumental in the origins of the American Revolution—has been kicking around for decades. Two fairly recent books, Somersett: Or Why and How Benjamin Franklin Orchestrated the American Revolution by Phillip Goodrich, and Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution, by Alfred Blumrosen, put the English court case of Somersett v Steuart at the center of Franklin’s ingenious plan to convince the pro-British southern colonies to join his revolution.

According to Goodrich, Franklin was determined to violently break with Britain, but he was having great difficulties getting the loyalist southerners on board. Fortunately for Franklin, the answer was dropped in his lap in the form of a British court case, Somerset v Steuart (1772), which recognized that the petitioner, an enslaved person named Somersett, was a human being, and not “lost property.”

Franklin made sure southern colonists knew that their beloved institution of slavery was in jeopardy in the British colonies. (And, indeed, within six decades slavery would be outlawed in all British territories.)

Southern colonists found themselves between a rock and hard place. Remain part of the British Empire and eventually see a complete ban on slavery, or sign up for Franklin’s revolution.

For the slave masters the choice was easy.

The gambit southern slaveholders made was that they would win the War of Independence, afterwhich they would go from having little to no clout with the British Empire to have extraordinary clout with a new pro-slavery government.

The gambit worked. Until 1865, anyway.

Until now, American students have only been taught about the northern colonies’ reasons for revolution, which is to say, the northern colonies’ reasons are also ascribed to the southern colonies, as though there were no difference between the abolitionist Puritan Yankees and the slave owners down in Dixie. We are told of a “long train of abuses and usurpations,” by other British (taxation without representation, quartering soldiers in private homes, etc.). And, indeed, some of the colonists’ reasons for demanding independence seem downright whiny, ie.: “[The king] has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable…for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”

This traditional view of American history is, no doubt, more comfortable and convenient and “patriotic.” It is also dead wrong.

Of course, white Christian Americans do not want to hear that their holy war against the British Empire was fought in large part to maintain slavery. That’s hardly surprising. Southerners and conservatives are still largely in denial that The Civil War was fought over slavery and not the revisionist theory of “states rights.”

While we cannot make Americans accept the truth, it is our duty to, in the very least, expose them to the truth.