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Essay: The Age of Revolution

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  • Subject area(s): History essays
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When we consider the word ‘Revolution’ we automatically conjure up an image of armed fighting perhaps on a battlefield, but the ‘Age of Revolution’ does not just relate to an armed conflict. It was more significant as it was an era of battles fought across the universe for freedom and liberty as well as a period of industrial inventions that would influence global industry. The ‘Age of Revolution’ did much to alter the political and economic structure of the United States, stamping its seal on the discourse of slavery.

This essay will focus on the ‘”The Age of Revolution” the period from 1770 to 1823……. a period dominated by the ideals and aspirations of the American and French Revolutions’, and the impact the era had on slavery in the United States, particularly the southern states.  I do not intend to dwell on the plight of slaves during this period but rather to demonstrate how the ‘Age of Revolution’ reinforced the position of chattel slavery in the United States before abolition. Abraham Lincoln suggested that the American Revolution would radically change the perspective on slavery and possibly bring about its eradication. Whilst it certainly did change direction in the short term, the longer-term prospects for African American slaves became bleaker before its ultimate demise. In fact, it was not until 1865 that slavery in the United States was finally abolished in its entirety even though according to David Brion Davis, attention was focused on abolition as early as 1771, the start of our period when a bill passed by the Assembly of Massachusetts failed to win approval.  I will discuss the development and causes of the American Revolution, the fight to extricate the United States from Britain, and examine if and how slavery was reinforced at this time and what the effects were immediately after. I will also look at the Haitian and French Revolutions to ascertain if the events in these countries influenced slavery in any way and I will discuss the importance of the Industrial Revolution at this period to consider if this impacted on the slave industry. With this established, I will argue that the ‘Age of Revolution’, an era of struggle for liberty and freedom, not only inadvertently reinforced slavery in the United States, but set the agenda for a much wider debate that ultimately challenged the very being of the newly formed Unites States of America.

First we will look at the American Revolution, and how ‘the rise of liberty and equality in America had been accompanied by the rise of slavery.’  Britain’s control of America saw the beginning of its demise in 1765 and brought about eighteen years of political upheaval during which time the colonists of the thirteen States rejected British power to become autonomous by declaring themselves the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence clearly states ‘all men are equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’  However, all men were not equal: it is estimated that approximately 40% of the population in the southern states of America were, in fact, bondsmen, enslaved people.

There is no question that the Seven Years War was a key trigger factor for the American Revolution. In the mid-1700’s, Britain was at the height of its colonial power, a superior nation with a strong naval support. Britain alongside France and Spain was one of three key players in North America. In 1753, disagreements between France and Britain over French land led to war: following several small battles, which were seen not just in America but reverberated worldwide, the might of the British Empire and its naval strength ensured victory, culminating in the signing of The Treaty of Paris in 1763. France seceded most of its land and Britain emerged from the Seven Years War as the most powerful and largest Empire in the world; but fighting wars are expensive, and thus, Britain’s financial security had been challenged. Britain was in debt by approximately £130m and finance was required, crucial to maintaining the Royal Navy and protect British investment. The British government recognised that a way to raise revenue was to implement taxes on its colonies, and it was at this point the chain of events began that ultimately led to the American Revolution.  I would suggest there were several taxes most significant. The Proclamation Act of 1763 which was aimed at tightening the Navigation Acts and enforcing the capture of American smugglers and two taxes directly aimed at raising revenue: The Sugar Act of 1764 which called for substantial tax on the import of all sugar and molasses and the Stamp Act of 1765 which taxed all paper material items, such as newspapers, stamps, documents etc.   There were other hostile acts such as the Currency Act in 1764 which was designed for the British to assume control of the colonial currency structure. This resulted in existing money plummeting in value as it prohibited printing of new money and the Revenue Act of 1767 which placed a duty on glass, lead, paint and paper. In 1770 following a boycott of British goods, the shooting of five Colonials by British soldiers on the streets of Boston shocked both London and the colonies as tensions continued to rise. We might see the abolition by Parliament at this point of several of the newly appointed taxes as a move to dilute increasing antagonism, but the established Tea Act remained in force and this culminated in Bostonians dumping over 340 chests of British tea into the sea.  Britain retaliated by imposing heavier fines on the colonies, collectively known as the Coercive Taxes and it could be argued that whilst the American colonies proved they were unable to pay the extortionate and continuous taxes, this became predominantly costlier for the British Empire. It ultimately lost control of the colonies entirely and may have proven to be the catalyst that sparked the American Revolution.

The resistance to paying the taxes caused riots and petitions against the British government that gave rise to much nervousness in Britain and discontent throughout America, experienced by both British and Americans in the colonies. The general mood amongst those resentful toward the British was that taxation should have been a subject of state control and not for the British parliament in London as there were no representatives from the colonies; initiating the phrase ‘No taxation without representation.’ Consequently, colonials began to view the British government and King as tyrannical enslavers and in 1774 a meeting of delegates from the colonies took place. 1775 armed conflict between the British and the Patriots (colonials) ensued. The Americans were fighting for liberty and freedom and the following year, the colonies signed a petition justifying their cause for revolution and declaring their independence from King George III and Britain. The Declaration of Independence was to become the American Constitution in later years, but the Revolution had opened the discourse on many subjects, one being that of slavery. What would happen to enslaved African Americans?

The Declaration of Independence clearly states that all men are equal, but slaves were not viewed as people. Whilst some colonists saw slavery as iniquitous, others did not. Yolanda Williams Page, the editor of Icons of African American Literature: The Black Literary World: demonstrates the way James Baldwin ‘highlights how the American Negro has been situated in every aspect of life as separate from humanity and thus has a separate dehumanization.’   Negroes were used as instruments in the American political game but were never given consideration as human beings.  They were property, possessions of their owners and when the colonies rose up against the British to claim independence in 1775, the slaves created an opportunity for freedom. ‘Slave Rebelliousness manifested itself in two ways: open revolt by force of arms and defection to the British.’

Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775 offered the latter to slaves and indentured servants.  For those who would abscond to take a position with the British Crown, would achieve freedom. However, it could be argued that this plan should be seen as a political objective rather than a humanitarian one as endorsed by James Baldwin.  The intention was to increase support for the British and ensure the defeat of the Patriots; I can find little evidence to suggest that the British were considering the welfare or the ethics of slavery. Freedom was an enticement that appealed to many and tens of thousands did indeed flee, but in turn, this further endorsed the hold on slavery as many southerners became anxious at the prospect and thus joined the Patriot cause that suggests this ultimately assisted in cementing a revolution to defend slavery. The response by General Washington at the end of 1775 authorized the enlistment of free blacks into the forces, but not slaves, although both free blacks and slaves were ultimately mandated in the early part of 1776, perhaps in a bid to alleviate the fear of a black slave rebellion. Nevertheless, it is understood that the British army liberated some 20,000 enslaved blacks during the war as opposed to a far lesser number gaining freedom from the States.  Notwithstanding this achievement for Black slaves, the British government and the King lost their claim to the colonies as the American – French alliance forced Britain out in 1783: The United States was autonomous from British rule and the British were seen as ‘duplicitous seducers of foolish slaves.’

From 1775 to 1783, when combining death and fleeing, the number of slaves in the Southern States of America declined, in some areas as much as by two-thirds.  However, ‘although briefly shaken, the slave system survived the war as important as ever’.  Many slaves after the war refused to return to labour and some maintained their military position in armed and organized groups. Whites believed they would undoubtedly give rise to general insubordination and coupled with the slave rebellion in Haiti, which I will discuss later in this essay, caused dread and fear amongst the white plantations.  ‘Faced by the slaves’ challenge, planters closed ranks and mobilized the newly established state authority.’  Harsher and more rigid control of the slaves were implemented and what had initially been seen as a way forward for the freedom of slaves, was now regressing as southerners viewed slaves as the enemy. During the eighteenth century, the southern states had become dependent on slaves for its agricultural economy and consequently sought to protect this. The northern states, however, did not. This was heightened by the U.S. Constitution of 1787 which implicitly endorsed the legitimacy of slavery as clauses were inserted to protect it. Although the words slave or slavery never appeared in the Constitution, slaves were distinguished by being referenced as ‘all other persons’ those separate from ‘free persons’:  ‘The framers of the Constitution were masters of the English language.’   Three main points in the constitution directly affected the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery. The Constitutional Convention agreed to count three-fifths of a state’s slave population in apportioning representation that gave the South extra representation in the House and more votes.  Article IV of the Constitution also stated that any fugitive slave should be legitimately returned, as property, to their rightful owners and the prohibition of the Atlantic slave trade should not be abolition until 1808 thus endorsing the trade for a further twenty years.

An event in1787 further enforced slavery despite the existence of the fight for abolition. In the years following Independence Thomas Jefferson presented Congress with an idea that would inadvertently expand the institution of slavery into newly opened territory in the South West. The idea known as the North West Ordinance was to divide into territories a piece of land, Louisiana, recently purchased from an almost bankrupt France.  Each territory would enjoy its own governor appointed by congress and it was to advocate free labour and prohibit slavery.  Theoretically, this appeared to be a sound proposal, Jefferson believed in the expansion of the United States territories and at the same time it would slowly enforce the decline of slavery, but due to the number of slaveholding congressmen voting against, it was rejected and consequently this fertile land encouraged the migration of slaveholders.

While we have discussed the armed conflict and the associated events in America we should now look at another form of revolution. With the loss of British financial support, natural disasters and increased competition, the revolution played a profound economic transformation of society as some plantation industries failed and the South looked toward Cotton as a replacement, which in turn further ‘fired the demand for slaves.’   The cotton gin was an industrial invention created be Eli Witney in 1763 to speed the production of cotton. As slaves were becoming increasingly more expensive to maintain due to the time it took to process cotton on the plantations; the machine was a very welcomed addition to the industry. With its success, the cotton gin helped to reduce the cost of cotton as it became faster and easier to produce. Therefore, we could have expected it to lessen the amount of physical manpower required to process cotton successfully. In other words, would this technology not have reduced the necessity for slaves? We could compare this scenario to that of ticket collectors on public transport who have been replaced by the modern day technology of’ touch and pay’ credit card systems. However, in the case of cotton and slavery, this had precisely the opposite reaction. The faster cotton was produced, the cheaper it became; export increased dramatically, the growing wealth of cotton plantation owners amplified, and so did the need for more slaves. While we might see this as an extremely successful invention, it increased the need for more slaves as next to slavery, the cotton industry grew to become one of the two most profitable commodities in the United States. By the end of what we have termed ‘The Age of Revolution’, the slave population had expanded to 1.75 million in the southern States of America alone.

While the newly formed United States had succeeded in fighting for its liberty and freedom from British tyranny, a few years later in 1789 encouraged by the events in America, France was also propelled into a state of revolution, a revolution that highlighted the start of European modern democracy.  We learned in a previous paragraph that France fought a costly ‘seven years’ war’ with Britain in North America, to exert influence over distant territories and after seceding all of its land in North America, France was also in a financial state of hardship. On July 14th 1789, the people of Paris rose up against the authorities in a bid for equal rights. When comparing the French Revolution to the American Revolution, it would appear there are parallels although the quantification of ‘Equal Rights’ differs: The French demanded equal rights for all mankind, evident in their ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1789’ which states, ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.’  In America, however, the Declaration of Independence upon which the Declarations of the right of Man were founded, makes no provision for approximately 21% of the population, enslaved people.  So, the American Revolution was fought to free Americans from the tyranny of the British and demand equal rights, but not for all Americans; the French Revolution was an uprising to free the French people from French tyranny and likewise demanded equal rights, for all men. I would argue that the nexus between these two revolutions occurred in Haiti, then called Saint-Domingue, which according to Robert Fogel was the primary sugar plantation of the French.  In 1791, Influenced by the French Revolution, the exploited black slaves of Haiti, rose up against their oppressors under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture calling for their rights as decreed under the French declaration. The irony here was the French declaration had been constructed under the influence of the American constitution which deliberately failed to include slaves and rendered them as nothing more than property, and yet the French declaration opened the door for the rebellion in Haiti as slaves demanded liberty and freedom. The slaves succeeded in not only seizing control against oppression but ended slavery on the Island. It was the only know successful slave rebellion in history and ‘undermined the ideological foundation upon which slavery rested’.

Perhaps we could view the period of armed revolution as having a domino effect? In the struggle for liberty and freedom from Britain, the United States offered Slaves the chance to fight for a small reward, while Britain offered the slaves freedom in exchange for loyalty. The French challenged the oppression and tyranny of the upper classes and also demanded liberty and freedom which sparked a slave rebellion in Haiti as the slaves called for the same under the new Declaration of Mankind. However, how did this reinforce slavery in the United States? I would argue it was the armed revolutions combined with the industrial revolution that strengthened slavery as greed and wealth plunged the country into an excessive desire for global economic power.

Perhaps now we can understand the paradox of chattel slavery and how the ‘Age of Revolution’ unconsciously fortified the industry in the United States. North America had more slaves than anywhere else in the world as procreation was rife and encouraged by slave owners to ensure return on their investment. The climate, too, was more conducive to a longer life span than that of slaves in other places. From 1770 to 1810, the number of slaves increased by nearly five times notwithstanding that awareness of the plight of slaves had already embarked on an active campaign for abolition.  Conversely, the military and economic obligations of the American Revolution was costly; it left the United States in a week financial and global economic position but substantiated the beginning of the political fight to end slavery as abolitionists reviewed the moral implications of the trade as highlighted in the Constitution and the country became divided. ‘The founders had placed slavery “on the course of ultimate extinction.”’

Having freed itself from the tyranny of Britain, the Declaration of Independence and then the Constitution, both opened the door for ethical challenge and at the same time, confusion, by laying down laws that the virgin country was unable to uphold, as the southern plantation owners grew wealthier. The Northwest Ordinance also played a significant part in reinforcing slavery: it intended to enlarge territories and launch the slow demise of slavery, but instead, unconsciously created new slave territories in the fertile lands of Louisiana and paved the way for increased industrial success which significantly augmented the need for more bondsmen. The Revolution in Haiti, built on the foundations of the Rights of Mankind, a product of the French Revolution, helped to destroy the Haitian sugar industry that then reinvented itself in the southern state of Louisiana. I would argue that although the Revolution in Haiti was successful in that it afforded freedom to all slaves there, the knock on effect enforced more slavery in the United States as the sugar industry in Louisiana boomed in the late eighteenth century to early nineteenth century:  Then we have to consider the impact of the cotton gin, an invention during the time of the Industrial Revolution that assisted in underpinning slavery in the southern states as its function increased the global demand for cotton and increased the wealth of plantation owners.

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