Our story begins with a decision by The King’s Bench, Somerset V Stewart.
The Gavel Heard ‘Round The World
Writing from the bench, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield knew his decision was going to be far-reaching, but he considered it unavoidable:
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.
The Somerset case revolved around a situation that had already occurred several times before: a slave owned by an American colonial had been brought with his owner to England, whereupon the slave ran away, taking advantage of England’s much more lax enforcement environment. In the colonies, at the time, a slave-owner whose slave ran away could fall back on the fact that slavery was a huge and vital piece of the economy, and there were professional slave-catchers and a whole legal infrastructure supporting slave-owner’s rights. In England, that infrastructure was largely absent, and abolition – while not the law of the land – was certainly a respected position.
Mansfield made many attempts to resolve the case without a decision – in the past, similar cases had been swept under the carpet by the simple expedient of having the court consult with a slave-owner and relinquish their claim. That allowed the case to not happen, thus not requiring a decision to happen either. In Somerset, the law was not let off the hook, and Mansfield wrote his decision – his words do not need adornment but bear close examination:
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory.
He is saying, in other words, “it’s currently legal in some places but it’s wrong that it’s legal.” Plato’s Socrates could not have done better – if the law is about justice, we cannot uphold this person’s claim that they own this other man; it’s inherently immoral to do so, and a court concerned with justice cannot decide otherwise.
The date was May 14, 1772.
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.
Committee of Correspondance … About What?
The colonial politicians – most of the “Founding Fathers” – had established committees of correspondance – proto-government factions that coordinated the activities of nationalist Americans. They weren’t simply propaganda arms, though they sort of fulfilled that purpose, as well: one of the matters the committees corresponded about was interpretations of English law, how taxes affected the colonists* and establishment of the colonial “party line” on political affairs. There was considerable communication about the implications of the Somerset decision. Especially from the nationalists in Virginia – a state that’s entire economy, as far as its wealthy were concerned, was tied up with slavery in one way or another. There, the familiar cast of characters – Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee**** – turned up, establishing the colonials response to the actions of England.
Letters in archives from the committee members show that they were concerned about the Somerset decision. After all, how could they not be? Slavery was one of the yardsticks of their wealth, as long as an enabler of their wealth, and taxation and abolition were two barrels of a shotgun staring them in the face.
Calling it a “propaganda campaign” may be going too far, but, well, the colonial leadership began to frame the resistance to England in terms of two matters:
- They are taking our rights away
- They are taxing us
Which “rights” were the English taking away from the colonials? As subjects of the crown, under crown law, there wasn’t any actual attempt by England to take any of the colonials rights away, at all. Unless, of course, you mean their “right” to own people.***** A third item came from that: “No taxation without representation” – i.e.: England had no right to tax the colonists if the colonists didn’t have seats in Parliament. On the face of it, that’s a specious argument – the colonists were citizens of England and were subject to English law, with one odious exception, and were represented in Parliment through a system of crown-appointed governors and the rest of the parlimentary panoply. What the colonials meant was “we don’t like the representation we are getting” and “ow! taxes!”
What about the rights that England was taking away from the colonists? The patriots scored a propaganda coup by publishing some letters from Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts, in which he observed that it was impossible for the colonials to have the full rights of English subjects and that it was necessary to curtail their liberties. The colonial politicians began spreading the idea that the English were taking away the rights of the colonists, and were taxing them unfairly, and that “no taxation, without representation” – that the colonists had a right to be politically involved in setting the taxes and laws they lived under. You can see, already, the problem: they wanted to be able to vote against the taxes they didn’t like but they were guaranteed to always lose such a vote, and they wanted to preserve the “state’s rights” for each colony to have its own laws superceeding the crown’s. Nobody came right out and said it had anything to do with the Somerset decision, because nobody had to: Somerset meant slaves could no longer be held legally in England. The colonial leaders wanted to nullify Somerset.
At this point, you are probably thinking something like “Wow! This sounds … familiar!” From a standpoint of law, the colonists were arguing that they were being oppressed by having their right to oppress taken from them. From a standpoint of secession, the colonists were not actually interested in negotiating representation at all because if they achieved representation, they would be outnumbered anyway. The secession argument was a fig-leaf for protecting slavery. The taxation argument was a fig-leaf for protecting massive smuggling in sugar, tobacco, human beings, and alcohol.
1860 was a replay of 1776 with the subtle difference that the northern states had managed to build industrial economies that no longer depended on slavery, so the northern oligarchs no longer had to protect that right.
Wheeling and Dealing
After the revolution began, and succeeded, the winners sat down to divide the spoils. No longer under English law, Somerset didn’t count anymore and the founding fathers of the new United States of America were able to wrangle over how and where to include slavery in the economy of the country. There is a great deal of additional history worth studying, over whether or not Jefferson tried to spin slavery in the declaration of independence, or who traded what quid for whatever quo: but the damage had been done – a new country was created, separated from England, by a cabal of wealthy smugglers, tax dodgers, and trafficers in human bondage. The history we are taught in the United States of America continues to uphold the “no taxation without representation” message but ignores the question of what was being taxed and why those taxes were or were not unfair.
Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves and they toiled at his 5,000 acre plantation. He raped one of them, the 14-year-old Sally Hemings, who bore him several children. Two of his children he allowed to “escape” to freedom, and the other two were freed through his will at his death. Those were the only slaves that were ever freed from Jefferson’s chains. Hemings was put out to pasture and lived as if she were free and the remainder of Jefferson’s slaves were sold to pay off his debts.
George Washington owned hundreds of slaves (300+ at his death) and left instructions to free his slaves after his wife, Martha, died. So, making sure to lead the comfortable life of an oligarch, he allowed the great leveller, death, to do what he claimed to want to do all along.
Benjamin Franklin owned slaves and only publicly changed his views shortly before his death. His newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, carried advertisements for slave traders and slaves for sale. In 1790 he petitioned congress to end slavery – 28 years after the Somerset case had ended slavery in England, and three years before his death.
Patrick “Give me liberty or give me death” Henry’s sentiments probably were echoed by the 60 slaves he owned, who worked his 10,000 acre plantation.
John Hancock only owned one personal slave for household work, but as a “merchant” and smuggler, built his fortune out of sale of slaves, and products made and harvested by slaves.
Whitewashed history proclaims that Samuel Adams never owned slaves, but there was a slave – Surry – given to his wife, who Adams supposedly planned to emancipate but all the paperwork got bogged down and it took years and years and never happened. Surry’s services must have been indespensable.
Richard Henry Lee owned Stratford Hall, 16,000 acres of Virginia farmland, and many slaves. His descendant, born in Stratford Hall, commanded the Confederate army in the second american rebellion over slavery.
It appears that the only “founding father” who didn’t own slaves was Thomas Paine. Paine left a modest estate to his girlfriend, French revolutionary Nicholas Bonneville’s wife, Marguerite Brazier.
I started studying this topic several months ago, when I wondered one day what exactly was the relationship between English abolition and the US Revolutionary war. I was actually expecting to learn that abolition had been imported into the US by Quakers coming from England, or something. It turned out that that was also sort of true – but it’s impossible to dig a little ways into this topic without stumbling across the Somerset case and then you simply cannot avoid noticing that 1772 happened not long before 1776.
As I started researching that question, I quickly found “Slave Nation” by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen. It makes what I’d call the “strong claim” for slavery’s impact on the start of the revolution – that it was all because of slavery. I’m unconvinced of the strong claim, but the weak claim: that slavery was a significant factor in the revolution, is, I think, unavoidable. Blumrosen goes into more depth about various letters between Jefferson and Adams referring to the Somerset case, and so forth – frankly, I don’t find that there’s any more need for convincing once you ask yourself the question “what liberties are the English taking away from the colonists that they are so riled up about?” I have tried to reflect that in how I present this material.
My father’s a historian, and happened to call me the other day about something unrelated. We chatted for a few minutes and I asked him what he thought about this topic. “Ah. Yes. That’s something that’s pretty obvious to any historian, but the question is: what do you make of it?” Indeed.
My philosophy of causality is that humans don’t understand cause and effect very well (or at all!) in large systems, and we tend to point to something that’s a plausible cause and say “well, there, that’s it!” In a sense, that’s what the Blumrosens did: they correctly identified slavery as a major factor in the revolution, and – as part of refining and making their case – they filtered out many other factors. In Marcus-land, I’d say that it’s unquestionable that slavery was one of the primary detonators of the revolution, but that the French/Indian war (and attendant taxation) and stupid English colonial policies also played a part. “It’s not so simple” which is why I don’t agree with the Blumrosens strong claim. I urge you to do your own research and draw your own conclusions. In this article, I’ve linked sufficient pieces of information that – if you follow and absorb them and then critically assess them in the light of whatever other research you do – you’ll be qualified to have an opinion on this topic.
I’m as inclined to say that the american revolution was the consequence of a group of opportunistic, wealthy, oligarch tax-cheats and sleazeballs who manipulated public opinion to protect the vast fortunes they managed to extract from other people’s blood, sweat, and tears. The United States of America was built on destroyed lives and the revolution was fought to preserve the oligarchy’s ability to enslave their fellow human beings. I don’t think the revolution happened and the founding fathers became oligarchs. I think the founding fathers became oligarchs by theft, inheritance, and hard work******* – and the revolution happened as the oligarchs protected their position. They certainly were not great men, nor were they great political thinkers. Their greatness was in their ability to dupe a largely ignorant populace that was busy just surviving. The brilliance of their creation was to kick the can down the road on slavery for further generations to deal with – and die over.
The founding fathers did not create a great country, they created a shambles in order to foster what became the seeds of its own destruction a mere 100 years later. The same script has been played over twice so far and if you hear someone talk about secession, in this country, they are following a tradition: The Great American Dupe-hood. Donald Trump and Thomas Jefferson are shit stamped in the same mold, but Jefferson had better hair.
As I write this, Bill O’Reilly, who – in colonial times – would be treated as subhuman (Assuming O’Reilly indicates Irish descent) is bemoaning that Michelle Obama had the temerity to remind us that the White House was built by slaves. That’s absolutely true. The whole fucking country exists because of slaves.
(* More precisely: slaves farmed tobacco for him)
(** Taken from the Indigenous Peoples, naturally!)
(*** And, by “colonists” we mean “colonial oligarchs” Most of the issues around slavery and taxation didn’t affect the lower, agrarian, and working class at all)
(**** Yes, “those” Lees)
(***** I feel like this article should be liberally salted with “scare quotes” except it would be about 80% “scare quotes” around most of the text. Instead of doing that, I have tried to write in such a way as to indicate what I think is bullshit and what isn’t. In case I have failed in that regard, let me be clear: the colonials were slinging a very great deal of bullshit, indeed.)
(****** A lot of that hard work being done involuntarily by slaves)