Most people know about Bill O’Reilly’s unbelievably idiotic remarks about slaves building the White House, and his subsequent doubling down, attempting to justify his previous commentary and digging quite the hole for himself. O’Reilly spent a fair amount of time opining that liberals literally want him dead. I don’t want you dead, Bill, I want you off the air.
Anyroad, the idiotic remarks about slaves and the astonishing distortion of actual history inspired Marcus Ranum to do a very in-depth post about slavery. Here’s a little bit:
The Odious Institution
The colonies in America had been priming themselves for a revolution for some time. Unpopular legislation from England, in the form of taxes and regulations – notably The Stamp Act, The Sugar Act, The Townshend Act – had provoked protest, violence, tax collectors being brutalized, and civilian protestors shot down by redcoats. England was trying, simply enough, to extract some of the colony’s massive wealth through taxation, to pay for its various wars. The colonial leaders were trying, simply enough, to keep their wealth – a great deal of which was at best semi-licit: whenever the crown would levy a new tax, the colonial entrepreneurs would smuggle the goods, anyway.
The “triangle trade” was taking place “off the books” to a significant degree, and was at least partly designed to facilitate smuggling. It was a hugely profitable trade-route, and underpinned much of the New England economy as well as that of the American south’s most powerful and wealthy state, Virginia. From 1770 to 1780 the people who became the political leaders in the colonies were all wealthy, and that wealth depended on smuggling, slavery, land speculation, tobacco or cotton farming, or “trade” (which meant: buying and selling alcohol, tobacco, slaves, etc) – the unhappiness the colonial political leaders were feeling with England was that their tax-sheltered existences were threatened. They were already hugely wealthy, in terms of the time, with some notable exceptions (Jefferson was really really good at spending money!) George Washington was the largest land speculator in the colonies, John Hancock was a smuggler “trader” of large but unknown fortune, Jefferson owned lots of land, slaves, and farmed tobacco and cotton.* They had time and inclination to get involved in politics because they had a great deal of wealth at stake and had enough wealth that they could take the time – literally afford – to travel about protecting their interests.
For the colonial elite, the Somerset decision had the attention-riveting effect of a dagger pressed against the throat. It was immediately seen as a threat to their interests for the simple reason that: the colonies were under England’s law. If English law had finally come down on the issue of slavery as odious, immoral and – what really mattered: unenforceable – the colonial elite had a serious, serious problem on their hands.
So they did what any justice-loving group of leaders would do: they worked out how to emancipate the slaves, apologized and compensated them with grants of land** and started tithing a reasonable percentage of their gains to England.
Of course they didn’t.