Sunday, May 20, 2012

Slaves in the Revolutionary War Era


1. Sentiment in England and America

The materialism of the eighteenth century, with all of its evils, at length produced a liberalism of thought that was to shake to their very foundations old systems of life in both Europe and America. The progress of the cause of the Negro in this period is to be explained by the general diffusion of ideas that made for the rights of man everywhere. Cowper wrote his humanitarian poems; in close association with the romanticism of the day the missionary movement in religion began to gather force; and the same impulse which in England began the agitation for a free press and for parliamentary reform, and which in France accounted for the French Revolution, in America led to the revolt from Great Britain. No patriot could come under the influence of any one of these movements without having his heart and his sense of justice stirred to some degree in behalf of the slave. At the same time it must be remembered that the contest of the Americans was primarily for the definite legal rights of Englishmen rather than for the more abstract rights of mankind which formed the platform of the French Revolution; hence arose the great inconsistency in the position of men who were engaged in a stern struggle for liberty at the same time that they themselves were holding human beings in bondage.
In England the new era was formally signalized by an epoch-making decision. In November, 1769, Charles Stewart, once a merchant in Norfolk and later receiver general of the customs of North America, took to England his Negro slave, James Somerset, who, being sick, was turned adrift by his master. Later Somerset recovered and Stewart seized him, intending to have him borne out of the country and sold in Jamaica. Somerset objected to this and in so doing raised the important legal question, Did a slave by being brought to England become free? The case received an extraordinary amount of attention, for everybody realized that the decision would be far-reaching in its consequences. After it was argued at three different sittings, Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of England, in 1772 handed down from the Court of King's Bench the judgment that as soon as ever any slave set his foot upon the soil of England he became free.
This decision may be taken as fairly representative of the general advance that the cause of the Negro was making in England at the time. Early in the century sentiment against the slave-trade had begun to develop, many pamphlets on the evils of slavery were circulated, and as early as 1776 a motion for the abolition of the trade was made in the House of Commons. John Wesley preached against the system, Adam Smith showed its ultimate expensiveness, and Burke declared that the slavery endured by the Negroes in the English settlements was worse than that ever suffered by any other people. Foremost in the work of protest were Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, the one being the leader in investigation and in the organization of the movement against slavery while the other was the parliamentary champion of the cause. For years, assisted by such debaters as Burke, Fox, and the younger Pitt, Wilberforce worked until on March 25, 1807, the bill for the abolition of the slave-trade received the royal assent, and still later until slavery itself was abolished in the English dominions (1833).
This high thought in England necessarily found some reflection in America, where the logic of the position of the patriots frequently forced them to take up the cause of the slave. As early as 1751 Benjamin Franklin, in his Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, pointed out the evil effects of slavery upon population and the production of wealth; and in 1761 James Otis, in his argument against the Writs of Assistance, spoke so vigorously of the rights of black men as to leave no doubt as to his own position. To Patrick Henry slavery was a practice "totally repugnant to the first impressions of right and wrong," and in 1777 he was interested in a plan for gradual emancipation received from his friend, Robert Pleasants. Washington desired nothing more than "to see some plan adopted by which slavery might be abolished by law"; while Joel Barlow in his Columbiadgave significant warning to Columbia of the ills that she was heaping up for herself.
Two of the expressions of sentiment of the day, by reason of their deep yearning and philosophic calm, somehow stand apart from others. Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia wrote: "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions; the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other.... The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.... I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice can not sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature, and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."51 Henry Laurens, that fine patriot whose business sense was excelled only by his idealism, was harassed by the problem and wrote to his son, Colonel John Laurens, as follows: "You know, my dear son, I abhor slavery. I was born in a country where slavery had been established by British kings and parliaments, as well as by the laws of that country ages before my existence. I found the Christian religion and slavery growing under the same authority and cultivation. I nevertheless disliked it. In former days there was no combating the prejudices of men supported by interest; the day I hope is approaching when, from principles of gratitude as well as justice, every man will strive to be foremost in showing his readiness to comply with the golden rule. Not less than twenty thousand pounds sterling would all my Negroes produce if sold at public auction to-morrow. I am not the man who enslaved them; they are indebted to Englishmen for that favor; nevertheless I am devising means for manumitting many of them, and for cutting off the entail of slavery. Great powers oppose me—the laws and customs of my country, my own and the avarice of my countrymen. What will my children say if I deprive them of so much estate? These are difficulties, but not insuperable. I will do as much as I can in my time, and leave the rest to a better hand."52 Stronger than all else, however, were the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Within the years to come these words were to be denied and assailed as perhaps no others in the language; but in spite of all they were to stand firm and justify the faith of 1776 before Jefferson himself and others had become submerged in a gilded opportunism.
It is not to be supposed that such sentiments were by any means general; nevertheless these instances alone show that some men at least in the colonies were willing to carry their principles to their logical conclusion. Naturally opinion crystallized in formal resolutions or enactments. Unfortunately most of these were in one way or another rendered ineffectual after the war; nevertheless the main impulse that they represented continued to live. In 1769 Virginia declared that the discriminatory tax levied on free Negroes and mulattoes since 1668 was "derogatory to the rights of freeborn subjects" and accordingly should be repealed. In October, 1774, the First Continental Congress declared in its Articles of Association that the united colonies would "neither import nor purchase any slave imported after the first day of December next" and that they would "wholly discontinue the trade." On April 16, 1776, the Congress further resolved that "no slaves be imported into any of the thirteen colonies"; and the first draft of the Declaration of Independence contained a strong passage censuring the King of England for bringing slaves into the country and then inciting them to rise against their masters. On April 14, 1775, the first abolition society in the country was organized in Pennsylvania; in 1778 Virginia once more passed an act prohibiting the slave-trade; and the Methodist Conference in Baltimore in 1780 strongly expressed its disapproval of slavery

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