We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?
-Samuel Johnson: Taxation No Tyranny: AN ANSWER TO THE RESOLUTIONS AND ADDRESS OF THE AMERICAN CONGRESS
I doubt anyone could ever accuse me of possessing a single SJW bone in my body. However I do think that the question of whether the desire to retain slavery amongst the American colonies did partially motivated them to break free from Britain does merit some attention from a historical point of view, and not merely out of an itch to excoriate one’s historical legacy.
The Somerset Case
To understand the arguments for this claim we will need to look to a case which came before the English bench in 1772, shortly before the tumultuous War of Independence in 1775. The case before the English bench concerned the issue of whether or not James Somerset, a negro slave transported to England from Virginia, could be compelled to leave English soil. Below is J.H. Baker’s account of the case concerning the legality of slavery from his Introduction to English Legal History:
The question came before Lord Mansfield CJ and the King’s Bench in 1771. A writ of habeas corpus had issued to secure the release of James Somerset, a negro confined on board a ship arrived in the Thames from Virginia, bound for Jamaica, and the return stated that he was a slave under the law of Virginia. Lord Mansfield was anxious to avoid the issue of principle, and pressed the parties to settle; but the cause was taken up by the West India merchants, who wanted to know whether slaves were a safe investment, and it became a cause célèbre. The law of villeinage was turned by Somerset’s counsels into an argument against slavery, since the kind of proof required to establish villein status was not available for slaves. In the end the court ordered that ‘the black must be discharged’. But Lord Mansfield, while stating that slavery was ‘odious’, did not decide that slavery was unlawful, not even that a slave could not be made to leave England against his will. The decision also left aside the problem in the conflict of laws: if a person was a slave by the law of the place of domicile, which was not disputed in the case of Somerset, a mere temporary presence in England would not free him permanently, even for purposes of English law. Several contract cases concerning overseas slaves in fact came before Lord Mansfield and no suggestion was made that the contracts were illegal or contrary to public policy.
The common law would go no further. But the decision of 1771 was widely understood as freeing slaves in England, and this understanding assisted the growing abolition movement. Slavery did not, like villeinage, die naturally from adverse popular opinion, because vested mercantile interests were too valuable, and also no doubt because many white people still regarded blacks as innately inferior; nevertheless in 1792 the House of Commons voted in favour of ‘gradual’ abolition, and in 1807 parliament outlawed the African slave trade by legislation. This prevented British merchants exporting any more people from Africa, but it did not alter the status of several million existing slaves, and the courts continued to recognise colonial slavery. The abolitionists therefore turned their attention to the emancipation of the West Indian slaves. This was more difficult to achieve, since it required the compulsory divesting of private property; but it was finally done in 1833, at a cost of £20 million paid from public funds in compensation to slave owners. From 1 August 1834 all slaves in the British colonies were ‘absolutely and for ever manumitted’.
It is clear from Baker’s account that Lord Mansfield technically did not free the slaves. However the question at hand is not the legal technicalities of the ruling but how it was perceived by the British and especially the American colonies. Baker points out that it was seen to be the beginnings of the emancipation of the slaves. Even if it was not that, it is easy to understand how the American colonies could see the ruling as serving as a precedent which could seriously hamper the slave trade. The next question we will need to attend to now is how did the American colonies and rebels perceive this ruling.
The American Rebels’ Understanding of Slavery
On this particular point, even if the Mansfield ruling did not free the slaves, it seems that it was in the minds of the American rebels as they sought independence from Britain, especially amongst the slave owning south. A friend of mine helpfully made the following observations:
The slavers of the south, as Gerald Horne writes, were alarmed at a possible slave insurrection such as were periodically witnessed in the Caribbean. The French and Spaniards had on occasion attempted to raise the slaves in the British colonies against the colonists, and the British themselves were to play this card in 1775 when Lord Dunmore issued an emacipation proclamation in Virginia and created the Ethiopian Regiment. At that point British rule in the south practically ceased to exist.
Jefferson had also originally added into the Declaration of Independence a line accusing George III of inciting slaves to rebel against the colonists. The original line read ‘inciting American Negroes to rise in arms against their masters,’ which was altered to ‘he has excited domestic insurrections among us.’ If it was important enough to make into the official list of grievances against the British it must have carried some weight.
It should also be remembered that though the war was initially fought in the northern colonies, it should be regarded that there were good military reasons for this rather than political ones. The north is hemmed in very close to the sea by the Appalachians, which then formed the practical limit of settlement, and had numerous excellent harbours and large urban concentrations, an ideal region for the employment of sea power.
Using their navy, and the line of the Hudson, the British intended to reduce the northern colonies by dividing them and isolating them. Only after the failure of Burgoyne and Howe and the arrival of the French did the British alter their strategy, which Mahan thinks was a mistake, in going for the southern colonies. Here the only major ports were Savannah and Charleston, but the hinterland was much more extensive as the Atlantic Coastal Plain is much wider, and as the Appalachians taper off to the south they gradually disappear into the gap between Georgia and Alabama, forming a natural extension of the lowlands of the Mississippi Valley.
The British found precious little welcome in the south as they did in the north, and it ought to be remembered that it was in the south that the decisive victory was achieved. The British decision to disperse between New York and Charleston was indeed exceedingly foolish, but on military grounds a concentration on either the south or north might have succeeded. Ministers in London were fooled by refugee loyalists who lied and said that the southern colonies were full of loyalists, which is perhaps the origin of the myth that the south was pro-British, and was to be heard again by French royalist conspirators, and in such things as the Neuchâtel Crisis when Prussian royalists convinced Frederick William IV that Neuchâtel was rife with anti-Swiss sentiment. It was also heard before when the Stuarts told Louis XIV and Louis XV of their wide base of support in England, which never materialised in all of their descents on British shores. Such exaggerations appear to have been fairly common in these matters as it was obviously in the interest of the refugees to obtain whatever help they could by whatever means necessary, even if it meant bald-faced lying or subterfuge.
But in fact Cornwallis could make almost no headway during the Southern Campaign. Even though he won a number of tactical engagements, he could not seriously penetrate the country and patriot minutemen constantly harassed his extended communications, forcing him back to the coast, where we all know what happened to him.
So it would seem to me that the British initially refrained from operating in the south, not because the south wasn’t in earnest about rebelling, but because it was militarily much more sensible to operate in the north, and only changed their minds when they were misled into thinking that the numbers of loyalists would compensate for their extended communications and division of effort to make a southern campaign feasible.
Clearly if this account is right, slave insurrection was on the minds of the American rebels and was in fact one of their grievance against the British. Perhaps some consciousness of the incongruity pointed out by Samuel Johnson, between complaining about British tyranny while maintaining slaves, forced the Americans writers of the Declaration of Independence to scratch out that embarrassing inconsistency.
It is instructive to note that even as Britain abolished slavery across the empire in 1834, America would fight a civil war over that in 1861, almost thirty years later.
So were the Americans motivated by lofty ideals of representational government, ancient liberties and rights, or were these rationalisations merely a cover for more mundane motives as the simple desire to retain their slaves? Though only God can scrutinise the hearts of man, prudence and historical experience tells us that man are so rarely one dimensional or systematic, but are made of complexes of desires, reasons, and rationalisations which often defy simple harmonisation. Perhaps they themselves felt keenly their inconsistency, maybe even to the point of hypocrisy. What is clear however is that the consideration of the British freeing the slaves in the colonies was one of the motivating factors in their minds.
Notice that I make no mention of the merits or demerits of slavery there and then. I know of American alt-right people who have argued that slavery was a good and beneficial thing for black slaves back then (for an extensive defence see here). Even the Guardian itself, certainly no friend of reactionaries, have noted that the emancipation may have brought about more deaths, poverty and starvation for the black slaves than it did before emancipation. So the case may not be as absurd as it sounds.
What does this mean for the larger American founding myths and narratives? Speaking as a Chinese, when you’re part of a civilisation or empire as long and complex as China, you learn to develop an ironic posture towards the past. America, in the greater scheme of things, is still a very young nation, unsure of itself, grasping tightly to its founding myths and narratives. However if America is ever to grow and stabilise as a nation, it needs to read history without the blinkers, to recognise it for both the good, the bad, and the ambiguous, and to learn from it that they might not be perennially shackled to an imagined past. But most of all the great Protestant Republic needs to learn forgiveness, which is the key to being unafraid to reading history factually and soberly, to know that whatever the wrongs it had committed can be overcome by grace, and eventually forgotten by forgiveness, that they might tend to the needs of the present without the need to grasp tightly at some self-justifying past myth to which they owe no loyalty. For a nation is not sustained by myths concocted by man, but by the presentist providence of God supplying the nation’s needs today.