Slave Nation Response
Slave Nation, How Slavery United the Colonies & Sparked the American Revolution, by Alfred W. Blumrosen and Ruth G. Blumrosen, explains the story of slavery as it helped to unite America. Though Britain was one of the biggest slave-trading nations, they were also the first to abandon it. There were 800,000 Africans who were freed due to Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and the slaves were given compensation for the time they spent laboring. Britain abandoned slavery based on moral reasoning that it could not be tolerated as man was free. Slave Nation tells the story about how Britain’s abolition of slavery sparked the colonists from Britain in America to become an independent colony, free from Britain. Therefore, one can assume, America, the land of the free, was united through slavery.
A nine-year-old boy named Somerset was kidnapped from Africa and rode the Middle Passage to America. Somerset was a highly functional slave and he was greatly valued by his owner, Charles Stewart. Stewart took him in as part of his family and treated him as such. Granville Sharp wrote a tract to help secure freedom of runaway slaves; this inspired Somerset to leave Stewart. Stewart was furious and caught Somerset after leaving and wanted him to be sold in Jamaica. Luckily, his godparents petitioned the Court of King’s Bench for writ of habeas corpus because Somerset was being held against his will. The King’s Bench was the oldest and highest common law court in England. Lord Mansfield was a powerful jurist who did not want to decide on the legality of slavery in England but eventually decided to abolish slavery based on the thesis that “If a master could not use force to restrain a runaway slave, the slave could liberate himself.”
America was shaken up by Britain’s choice to abolish slavery. In a matter of days, 43 stories about Somerset were written in at least 20 newspapers throughout the colonies. This included both Virginia and South Carolina who were slave states. Their newspapers were very critical of the Somerset decision. The South Carolina Gazette warned the southern slaveholders that their society could be at risk of greater supervision of colonial action, taxation of slavery, and direct parliamentary control of slavery.
The colonies did not have accurate representation in Parliament that was needed. They created the Virginia House of Burgesses to start reversing this error. In the House of Burgesses, 110 of the leaders were farmers and 39 were practicing lawyers. There was already a vast majority of people who would be against the Somerset decision because they have their own slaves doing work on their farms. For example, Henry Laurens was a slave plantation owner and he disagreed with the Somerset decision and worked to make sure slavery in the south would not be jeopardized by the new government system in the colonies. Slavery was the foundation of the economic and social environment that their leaders wanted to protect, considering most of the leaders were southern plantation owners. Slavery was incredibly important to the South. This decision to abolish slavery caused much tension to grow between the northern colonies and the southern colonies. Southern families relied on farming for their income. Farming was mainly accomplished through slaves. “The planters and families were always conscious that their financial and personal security were shaky.” During this time, there was a spike in slave revolts, murders, and violence. At this time, Mansfield had 3 points of reasoning in the Somerset case. “1) Slavery was repugnant to common law. 2) Parliament had final say concerning the legality of slavery under the Declaratory Act of 1766. 3) Parliament had claimed the power to tax the colonies for slavery in the same Declaratory Act.” This alerted the southerners and they began to think of starting a revolution.
The northern leaders were completely anti-slavery and this also bothered the south. James Otis was a leading antislavery advocate from Massachusetts and he believed slavery was a violation of natural rights, as “colonists are by law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.” Southerners believed slavery was a necessity and Northerners believed even slaves have natural rights.
America began taking part of their own government because Great Britain started threatening the American colonies. The South and North were united in decision to discuss the Acts of Parliament which included limiting slavery and imposing taxes. Virginia brought up the basis for a revolution. They demanded independence from Parliament. This was faced with conflict from southern leaders. The South wanted to be “assured that slavery would be left alone by the newly constituted free country if they chose to join the North in the revolution.” Virginia’s position on that argument was that slavery was evil. There were many thoughts about a Declaration of Independence from Britain. “We are not to consent by representatives of representatives.” The colonies were noticing that they were not getting represented at all. They needed to be an active part in government.
War started breaking out in the colonies against Britain. The Virginia governor, Lord Dunmore promised to free all slaves that would join him. Many of the slaves took up the offer. The colonials already had fears that Britain would use the colonies for their own purposes, such as slaves murdering masters, and this confirmed it. Virginia responded to that proposal with “amnesty to slaves who returned, and death to those who fought against it.”
Richard Henry Lee’s motion for independence required Congress to establish a national government. John Dickinson was in charge of preparing a draft of the Articles of Confederation. He proposed a strong central government with general powers in legislature. Southern leaders disagreed with the Articles of Confederations because they saw risk to slavery at every turn. Another part of disagreement showed up and that was the western territory. The south wanted it for tobacco fields, and more slavery. The North wanted slave free lands.
The colonies were having trouble coming up with a document to be based on. The Articles of Confederation created a frail central government. There was not an executive branch, so no one was really in control or had a place of authority. Each state had 1 vote in congress and could veto any change, allowing no growth. The Virginia delegation wanted a strong national government headed by the larger states based on population. Now the question that came into play was, are the slaves going to count? There would be equal votes in Senate but the House votes would be based on population. The underlying issue was slavery. Slavery was keeping the northern and southern states apart. The South wanted slaves in population count to gain more representation but the north didn’t want a slave nation. Nathaniel Bacon had an idea to kill and attack the Natives in the western territory in order to take over their land. Many farmers participated in Bacon’s Rebellion. A congressional drawn line between slave and free states would maintain a balance of power in the national government. The Northwest Ordinance was adopted and stated that slavery had been prohibited in the NW territory. It was confirmed that states have equal representation in Senate, House is population & 3/5 slaves. The Kansas- Nebraska Act stated that popular sovereignty should decide whether a slave was free or not. It was going to be battle deciding whether new territories would be slave free or a slave state. With the Louisiana Purchase, the country’s territory doubled and there was no limitation on slavery.
The end of the Civil war meant the end of formal slavery although racism was still going to be an issue. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 “which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, is considered one of the crowning legislative achievements of the civil rights movement.” The Blumrosens explained that the “First American Revolution protected slavery while the Civil War destroyed it.” What do I think? What I would like to think is that we didn’t unite through slavery. Slavery is the reason why racism still exists today. The south is considered a lot more racist than the North. I think the Blumrosens are right though, unfortunately. America united through slavery. Slavery was the basis of many of the decision and laws made. At the end of the day, “all men are created equal.”
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