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The Problems of Slavery

Abstract and Keywords

When the Stamp Act crisis erupted, the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade or the overthrow of colonial slavery was deemed impossible. Less than a quarter century later, by the time delegates gathered for the Constitutional Convention, both slavery and the Atlantic slave trade were being condemned, not only in the new United States, but also in Britain and France. Between 1765 and 1787, antislavery declarations and protests proliferated and imaginative proposals were put forward to achieve a comprehensive emancipation. The American Revolution was credited for initiating these changes by popularizing the idea of universal liberty and, in turn, stigmatizing the institution of slavery. Yet the founders failed to deliver the fatal blow to slavery after the war as the promise of universal emancipation implied in the war's rhetoric collapsed. Denied and deferred in the United States, the antislavery movement would achieve its greatest influence in Britain. In Saint-Domingue, slave insurrections led to the abolition of slavery in the French West Indies by 1794.

Keywords: American Revolution, slavery, abolition, antislavery movement, Britain, United States, slave trade, Constitutional Convention, emancipation

If there is a governing narrative about what David Brion Davis famously called “the problem of slavery in the age of Revolution,” it goes something like this: At the time of the Stamp Act crisis, few in North America or elsewhere imagined the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade or the overthrow of colonial slavery. Yet, by the Constitutional Convention, less than a quarter century later, both slavery and the Atlantic slave trade stood condemned among many in the new United States, most in Great Britain, and in some intellectual circles in France. The years in between, from 1765 to 1787, brought a profusion of antislavery declarations and protests, imaginative proposals to achieve a comprehensive emancipation, individual and collective efforts to liberate specific enslaved Africans, and new voluntary societies that aimed to institutionalize antislavery politics and lobby provincial and national governments for reform. The timing was more than coincidence. To an important degree, the story goes, the American Revolution caused these changes. The Revolution popularized the idea of universal liberty and, in turn, stigmatized the institution of slavery. In Revolutionary America, patriots turned against slaveholding in those places where slave labor proved marginal to the economy. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, slavery had been set on a course for extinction in Pennsylvania and across New England and banned from the Northwest Territory. Yet the founders failed to deliver the fatal blow to slavery after the War of Independence, when the institution was uniquely vulnerable. The promise of universal emancipation implied in the rhetoric of the Revolution collapsed before the increasingly powerful countercurrents of economic interest and racial animus. The emergent free black communities in the (p. 428) northern states, with a few abolitionist allies, kept the dream of emancipation alive into the early nineteenth century. Denied and deferred in the United States, the antislavery movement would achieve its greatest influence in Britain, where opposition to the Atlantic slave trade became after 1787 a public cause, and in Saint-Domingue, where slave insurrections led to the abolition of slavery in the French West Indies by 1794.1

This narrative, with its emphasis on the failed promise of the American Revolution, comports nicely with more general interpretations of the period that stress the decline of revolutionary fervor after the War of Independence. From this vantage point, the failure of antislavery in the early republic presents just one example of the broader retreat from the idealism of the Revolutionary era. At the same time, it suggests that an antislavery revolution had accompanied the American Revolution, that the Revolutionary generation had embraced abolitionism, if, later, they compromised on those commitments once independence had been achieved. Yet the more we know about the history of white American attitudes toward slavery during the Revolutionary era, the less compelling the rise-and-fall narrative becomes. It tends to assume, in the first place, that the Revolutionary generation wished to act but then lost the will to do so. And built in to such accounts is a second assumption: that the Revolutionary generation knew what to do—endorse liberty for all—once they recognized slavery as a moral problem.

Both assumptions need more careful scrutiny. The problem of slavery was not the same problem everywhere, for everyone. Only a small fraction of the Revolutionary generation embraced abolitionism. In much of the country, the most powerful people in the new nation, as well as many who wished to number among them, remained deeply invested in slavery and concerned above all with its perpetuation. A small number of committed abolitionists in the middle and northern states thought slavery cruel, sinful, and intolerable and worked assiduously for its eradication. A great many more, though, in the new United States, agreed that slavery was dangerous, shameful, and unpleasant but could not see how American society could get on without it, at least not without threatening the foundations of the social order. Without a clear and easy way forward, they found it simpler not to think too much about the subject at all.

Most in Revolutionary America cared much less about the problem of slavery than the few abolitionists active at the time and the many historians who have written about them since. If many began to think of slavery as a problem, this did not mean that they thought this particular problem important enough to find a solution for it. The antislavery revolution of the Revolutionary era brought a change in consciousness rather than a transformation in priorities or practice, particularly in those places where slavery mattered most. It inspired a shift in moral perception sufficient to unsettle the place of slavery in American life but insufficient to dislodge it from the social order or to force the formation of a new one.

(p. 429) The Slave Interest

For those who cared most about the institution, the problem of slavery was how to sustain it, how to prevent the defense of American liberties from destroying the foundations of American wealth. In the opening years of the war, this was a practical question even more than an intellectual problem. The primary threat to slavery looked to be the enslaved themselves rather than the small number of mostly Quaker abolitionists. Across the thirteen colonies, enslaved men and women took the building tensions between Britain and America as an occasion to seek their own independence. In Massachusetts, some petitioned for freedom. Many others, particularly in the southern colonies, ran away, or prepared for a war that they hoped would bring liberation. British officials in America exploited the threat of slave insurrection for political ends. Virginia governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, in 1775 offered liberty to slaves who would desert American patriots unwilling to submit to imperial rule. General Henry Clinton extended the offer to all slaves of patriots in North America in 1778. American slave owners, who constituted the entire governing elite in the Chesapeake, the Carolinas, and Georgia, therefore, worried far more about the British army of occupation than about the abolitionists during the War of Independence, and for good reason. The conflict devastated the plantation colonies, both in North America and the West Indies. The new United States lost as many as thirty-five thousand enslaved men, women, and children during the war. Georgia and South Carolina experienced particularly dramatic declines, with between one in four and one in six slaves lost to death, desertion, or confiscation by the British. In the British West Indies, thousands perished from famine with the collapse of the provision trade with the thirteen colonies. Antigua lost perhaps a fifth of its slave population during the American War. In the immediate aftermath, it looked as if it would be difficult to rebuild the plantation economy and its attendant slave society, particularly in North America. The destruction of property, the shortage of capital, the ruptured commercial networks, as well as the emerging antislavery movement left the future of slavery in doubt. For many of the wealthiest and most powerful Americans, the problem of slavery in the wake of the Revolution was not how to abolish the practice but instead how to save it.2

In some quarters, as a consequence, securing slavery mattered as much as winning the war itself. The needs of slavery often dictated the politics and military tactics of the plantation elite, even if those priorities put that elite at odds with American patriots elsewhere in the empire. Before the war commenced, anxieties about slave uprisings had helped neutralize patriot radicalism in the southern colonies and prevent it in the British Caribbean, where colonists could not afford, achieve, or, indeed, imagine political independence.3

The patriot leadership in the South declared for independence to protect slavery as well as to separate from Britain. Dunmore’s Proclamation alienated the southern elite in 1775 and early 1776, galvanizing revolutionary commitments (p. 430) to a degree that the Coercive Acts, for example, had not. South Carolina patriot Edward Rutledge thought that it would “more effectually work an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies,—than any other expedient which could possible have been thought of.” Virginia and South Carolina took up arms in 1775 to suppress and discourage black resistance even more than to confront British authority. When the war came, many in the Virginia gentry sent their slaves west, to the piedmont and beyond, far from the British army, so that they would find it more difficult to escape. Indeed, the patriot war effort suffered in the South because its leaders sometimes proved more committed to guarding the plantations than fighting the British army. State militia units throughout the region often went undermanned because estate owners preferred to keep overseers on the plantations rather than assign them to military service. Southern officials rejected proposals to establish slave regiments for fear that this would stimulate an even more profound revolution in the racial order and might undermine slavery for good. They could not accept, and did not want to contemplate, a society in which even a small number of men of color, as veterans of war, could take up arms, or stake a claim to citizenship. They thought it better instead to expand the number of white men invested in the institution of slavery. In 1781, South Carolina addressed its need for more men through Sumter’s law, which promised slave labor and land seized from confiscated estates to those who would enlist. Georgia began to award slaves to recruits in 1782. Some in the southern colonies fought not only to win independence but also to win slaves.4

The British government defended slavery too, an aim often overlooked in the recent scholarly emphasis upon British offers of liberty to runaway slaves willing to help His Majesty’s army. As in the case of the patriot cause, majority opinion must be distinguished from the schemes and actions of a few. Almost no one in Britain cheered Dunmore’s Proclamation in 1775 or the more general offer of sanctuary and liberty extended by General Clinton in 1778. British opponents of the war regarded such expedients as barbaric, as beneath the dignity of a civilized nation. They found in such measures evidence of incompetence and desperation rather than enlightened administration. Schemes promoting a comprehensive emancipation, or even the systematic arming of liberated slaves, were dismissed out of hand. The British government never contemplated abolishing slavery in North America to win the war as Jacobin France would do in Saint-Domingue in 1794. British strategy turned instead upon winning the loyalty of the colonial elite, who owed their wealth and standing to the ownership of slaves. If they wanted help from loyalists, British officials knew they needed to protect loyalist slave property. To sustain and perhaps increase the loyalist ranks, moreover, it would help to grant those loyalists slaves seized as contraband from patriot estates. In 1779, the Philipsburg Proclamation offered liberty to slaves who would desert, but it also promised to sell into (loyalist) slavery those who assisted American rebels.5

The commitment of the British state to the perpetuation of American slavery during the War of Independence was never in doubt. The army became the largest single slaveholder in the South at the end of the war. By 1781, more than (p. 431) five thousand enslaved men and women on sequestered estates in South Carolina labored to provision British soldiers in the field and to generate revenue for the army. British officers and loyalists, at the same time, sold an unknowable number of captured American slaves to the West Indies, where widespread famine and the collapse of the British slave trade had caused a dramatic population decline.6 Slavery in the British Empire survived the American Revolution, in part because the British government wanted it to.

That commitment was most evident in the West Indies, where British military strategy demonstrated the importance of colonial slavery to the imperial state. The Caribbean sugar colonies were the economic engine of the Atlantic empire, the crown jewel of British overseas possessions. If the British army had failed to make the defense of the West Indies a priority, the American War of Independence would have led to the loss of many if not all of the British Caribbean islands to France and Spain. Retaining the thirteen colonies, therefore, became less urgent to the British government when it looked as if the West Indian possessions might fall too. By the final years of the war, British authorities concentrated their declining resources on the most valuable of the American possessions, those colonies where the most slaves were. French admiral comte de Grasse could trap General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown in part because British naval commanders had become preoccupied with the West Indian theater. From the British perspective, the American War of Independence ended, importantly, not with defeat at Yorktown in 1781 but with victory over the French fleet intending to conquer Jamaica at the battle of the Saintes, in 1782.7 If the thirteen settler colonies were lost, the Caribbean empire and its hundreds of thousands of slave laborers and millions of pounds in revenue remained intact.

With the peace, entrepreneurs scrambled to restore North American and Caribbean slavery to its former prosperity. Declines in British Atlantic production of tobacco, rice, indigo, coffee, and sugar had created new opportunities for plantation owners elsewhere in the Caribbean or in Brazil to enter the field. Avoiding a permanent loss of market share meant rebuilding the plantations and restocking the labor force. The decade following the American War, from 1783 to 1792, witnessed the largest influx of African slaves to the American hemisphere in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, with nearly a million embarked from Africa during these ten years. Peace allowed for a reopening of the British and North American slave trades, which by the last years of the conflict had come to a near-total halt as a consequence of American prohibitions and the insecurity of all Atlantic traffics in time of war.8

Most of these new captives from Africa were sent to the British Caribbean, but a significant number went to the lower South, too, as American merchants, for the first time, took a preeminent position in supplying African slaves to American ports after the American Revolution. Before the war, North American merchants carried perhaps a sixth of the total slave trade to North America. After the war, they controlled nearly three-quarters of the slave trade. A substantial internal market in slaves developed in the aftermath of war as well. Historian James McMillan (p. 432) estimates that traders and slaveholders moved in total more than sixty thousand slaves to the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana during the 1780s, with perhaps half from the Chesapeake. Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware became net exporters of slaves after the American War. Those states had lost fewer captives during the conflict than the lower South and became, at the same time, less dependent upon slave labor as the economy of the region shifted from tobacco to grain. By contrast, demand for slave labor was high across South Carolina and Georgia, in the emerging backcountry settlements of Kentucky and Tennessee, and in the lower Mississippi Valley.9 American independence helped disperse slaveholding across the South, both geographically and through the social classes. Throughout much of the Americas, the Revolution broadened and intensified the commitment to slavery rather than reducing it.

Now, though, slavery required additional institutional support and new ideological defenses. The rapid rise in the free black population in North America during and after the war appeared to threaten the principle of white supremacy. Crystallizing doubts about the morality and justice of slavery forced slave owners to justify the practice. In response, the new state legislatures established in the lower South curtailed the rights of free blacks and discouraged or prohibited manumissions to stabilize the racial order. Redoubts of independent black life in the nascent maroon communities of escaped slaves across the colonies were quickly crushed.10

In addition to battling the freedom claims of the enslaved, the plantation elite in the new United States schemed to neutralize possible abolitionist assaults. When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, the South Carolina and Georgia representatives promised to walk out if it looked as if the new regime could threaten the future of slavery. The quick ratification of the new Constitution in those two states in part reflects confidence there that the new system of government would serve slaveholding interests.11

Matters looked rather different, though, in the British West Indies, where colonial slavery suddenly appeared insecure, even as the British slave trade to the sugar colonies revived. In 1784, the Crown effectively severed the British Caribbean from Britain’s former North American trading partners by recognizing the new United States as a foreign nation and thereby banning American merchants from British ports. For the first time in many decades, the West Indian elite found that they could not get their way when their economic interests were at stake. New challenges arose too from a still small but increasingly prominent Anglo-American abolitionist movement that condemned the Caribbean planters for their cruelty, greed, and moral bankruptcy. In the West Indies, during the 1780s, even more than in North America, the defense of slavery became an intellectual and cultural problem. The first pro-slavery publication campaign in the Anglo-American world would develop in the British Caribbean immediately after the American War, many years before the maturation of pro-slavery argument in the new United States.12

(p. 433) The Abolitionists

The first opponents of slavery, therefore, confronted an array of powerful institutions and interests in addition to the force of established precedent. At the same time, they benefited from the ideological shifts that exposed colonial slavery to widespread scrutiny across the Anglo-American world in the Revolutionary era. War had weakened slaveholding in North America, and, in the northern and middle colonies, where the institution was less economically central, and weakened commitments to it, especially among those who worried that the fate of the Revolution would depend upon its ideological consistency. As long as Americans opposed even a gradual emancipation of slaves, wrote John Jay in 1780, “her prayers to Heaven for liberty will be impious.”13

Yet dedicated antislavery reformers remained a tiny minority, even as that minority grew significantly between 1760 and 1790. The first abolitionists, among other challenges, would need to overcome the problem of limited numbers. For the most ardent opponents of slavery must be distinguished from the many more in both the thirteen colonies and in Britain who sympathized and sometimes endorsed antislavery principles but proved far more reluctant to regard abolition a public priority or worthy of collective action. Much of the work for the first abolitionists aimed at moving the weakly dedicated into active doing. They tried to make a cause that was in fact peripheral to Revolutionary politics look central to it. By 1790, that effort had achieved some notable successes, but it was also, in important respects, a substantial failure.

The sectarian context that produced the Anglo-American antislavery movements helps to account for its distinctive strengths as well as its ultimate limits. If slavery stood condemned intellectually by the cultured and polite by the middle of the eighteenth century, the Quakers first transformed moral scruples into everyday practice. During the American Revolution, opposition to slavery became for Quakers a defining feature of their collective identity. The Seven Years’ War mattered more than the American Revolution, however, to the new direction set by the Society of Friends. There had been among Friends for some time a tradition of antislavery witness that drew from the sect’s professed opposition to violence and luxury. Yet that witness failed to prevent widespread slaveholding among wealthier Quakers until the Seven Years’ War led Pennsylvania Friends to decide that, collectively, as a religious society, they had come to compromise too readily with worldly institutions. There followed a vigorous effort to rid the Society of Friends of corrupting practices; the holding of African men, women, and children in bondage came to be seen as one of these. The small size of the religious denomination, the strength of its interregional connections, and its corresponding capacity to impose a uniform standard for religious fellowship enabled Quakers to make withdrawal from slaveholding a condition of the faith. A matter of advice after 1761, the renunciation of slaveholding became by 1774 a requirement for those who wished to be recognized as Quakers. That stance helped reinforce group identity, but it also, (p. 434) before and after the American War, helped establish a mission for the sect, particularly once British Quakers, with some prodding, came to embrace antislavery after 1783.14

The translation of Quaker antislavery witness into a more general Anglo-American antislavery politics owed much to the Philadelphia educator Anthony Benezet, who saw in the brewing crisis between Britain and the colonies an opportunity to enlarge the audience for antislavery testimony. He understood early that the case for resistance to British rule could facilitate the case against slaveholding in North America. He saw in the nascent attempt to define an American political identity the chance to articulate new moral identities. Like many Quakers, Benezet never took a clear position on the American crisis, although like other Friends he opposed war in principle. Instead, he saw in the American Revolution the chance to make the institution of slavery a source of collective shame, to cast its abolition as the epitome of charity and the path to collective redemption. As early as the Stamp Act crisis, Benezet emphasized the tensions between the American demand for liberty and the American commitment to slavery. He badgered prominent colonial patriots into declaring themselves sympathetic to the antislavery cause. As early as 1771, he had conceived plans to colonize liberated slaves en masse outside the recognized boundaries of the thirteen colonies, west of the Appalachian Mountains. Many years before the war he insisted that the problem of slavery in the North American colonies would need to be addressed, in part, through legislation in Britain against the Atlantic slave trade as a whole, a position that would inform the efforts of later British activists like Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Through his many publications, Benezet introduced claims and themes central to antislavery thought and argument during the Revolutionary era. He helped the Anglo-American public to think of the problem of slavery as not only a matter of individual or sectarian conscience but also as the collective responsibility, of the colony, the nation, and the imperial state.15

These origins in religious witness and sectarian self-definition, however, also limited the antislavery appeal. A Quaker cause might be taken as a cause suited to Quakers but not broadly applicable, desirable, or even possible for American society at large, perhaps like the peace testimony that distinguished Friends from their peers. The rhetoric of American resistance created an audience for antislavery testimony in North America that might not have been there otherwise. Still, the association of abolitionism with Quakerism remained a barrier to overcome. Friends did most of the work in the American and British antislavery campaigns of the 1770s and 1780s. They wrote and published the majority of the more influential tracts. They mobilized their colonial and transatlantic networks to transmit and stimulate antislavery politics. They funded, organized, and administered the first antislavery organizations. Yet they also concealed the extent of their involvement to create the impression that a more general public outcry had arisen when, in important instances, clever Quaker propagandists had orchestrated it.16

Yet there was a practical as well as political dimension to antislavery activism that too frequently gets overlooked or undervalued in those histories most (p. 435) concerned with the push for abolition or emancipation. The first abolitionists in England and America not only aimed to change minds but also worked to set individual slaves free. The pioneer antislavery organization founded in Pennsylvania in 1775—The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage—made this mission explicit. For a time in Britain, and for a much longer period in North America, judicial remedies looked to be the most promising route to long-term institutional change. That orientation owed most to the initiative of enslaved men and women themselves, who, after the Seven Years’ War, not only ran away but also began to petition for freedom in those places where the institutional and ideological support for human bondage was weak.

This was first true in England, where tensions between property rights in Africans and the liberty of His Majesty’s subjects in England remained unresolved. An influx of slaves from the colonies to England in the 1760s, and the refusal of some there to accept their enslavement, drew alarmed observers like the London civil servant Granville Sharp to bring the legality of slaveholding in England before the courts. Lord Mansfield’s judgment in the case of Somerset v. Steuart in 1772 suggested that enslaved Africans enjoyed certain rights in England just in the moment when the parameters of the rights of Englishmen and the meaning of natural rights had become a matter of sustained controversy in both England and America. The verdict reverberated across the British Empire, but with particular consequence in North America, where it further encouraged enslaved men and women to regard the British state as a potential protector, and where it led early opponents of slavery to think that remedies to human bondage might be achieved through the courts. That tendency would be particularly apparent in Massachusetts, where slaves and their white supporters challenged the institution of slavery by seeking a judgment from the judiciary that the practice violated the new state constitution of 1780, an approach that led to its effective abolition in that state by 1783. The promotion of manumissions remained a point of emphasis among opponents of slavery in North America during the Revolutionary era, even as some looked hopefully to the day when the Atlantic slave trade and human bondage might be eradicated completely. The first antislavery organizations in the new United States took as their mission the encouragement of manumission, and the protection of liberated slaves, before extending their purposes, formally, to advocating abolition or emancipation.17

The almost simultaneous establishment of new antislavery organizations—the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage (1784), the New York Manumission Society (1785), and the British Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787)—reflected less a new beginning, therefore, than the ambitious expansion of earlier attempts to propagate the abolitionist gospel. The American Revolution appeared to have opened a space for the promotion not only of antislavery witness but also of a new antislavery politics. Capitalizing on that opportunity meant enlarging the circle of primarily Quaker activists to include supporters distinctive for their respectability, political influence, and sympathy for the antislavery cause, though perhaps less zealous for pursuing its most radical ends. (p. 436) The purpose of these new antislavery organizations was to cast abolitionism as enlightened, principled, and nonsectarian, to institutionalize a new political program. That image was essential to the work of these new antislavery societies, since now they aimed to lobby state and national governments (rather than individuals or courts of law), where in the end, it had begun to seem, the future of slavery would be decided.18

The Conflicted American Majority and Emergent British Consensus

The abolitionists enjoyed the greatest success in those places where slavery mattered least. Particularly in New England and Pennsylvania, principled opposition to slaveholding became an aspect of revolutionary identity among a small but important segment of the populace. Some patriots thought that because they had decided for their own freedom from tyranny, they had an obligation also to declare against the enslavement of Africans. Others maintained that the war for independence could only succeed in the eyes of God if they sanctified resistance through a renunciation of slaveholding. When Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts enshrined antislavery principles in their new state constitutions, or through legislation, they thought of themselves as fulfilling the requirements of their campaigns for liberty.19

The most compelling evidence for a transformation in general attitudes after the War of Independence lies in the growing number of instances in which slave owners themselves set slaves free. The free black population of the new United States grew rapidly after 1783, from a minuscule proportion to a significant minority of the African American population as a whole. In Virginia, for example, the number of free blacks increased from two thousand to twelve thousand in the decade after the liberalization of the state’s manumission laws in 1782. Some Virginia manumissions followed from Quaker and Methodist insistence that adherents surrender slave property. There was, however, a more general belief among a few in Virginia and elsewhere in the Chesapeake that the institutional and ideological changes that accompanied the Revolution left slavery morally suspect and socially undesirable. The difficulty of controlling enslaved men and women during the Revolutionary War led some to conclude that keeping African Americans in captivity perhaps was not worth the trouble. Even then, though, manumission in practice tended to represent a strategy of managing loss as much as an attempt to abide by new moral injunctions, let alone to reform the structure of economy and society. Often the terms of manumission required additional years of service from the enslaved, and prepared the way for a new kind of dependent relationship between the liberated and the former owner thereafter. As with the gradual abolition laws passed by state governments such as Pennsylvania (1780) and Connecticut and Rhode Island (both (p. 437) in 1784), manumitters often aimed to get free of slaves without an immediate or complete sacrifice of the benefits that slave labor had yielded.20

Not all of those who declared against slavery, however, acted accordingly. There was an important difference, and often a significant distance, between antislavery sympathies and antislavery commitments. The triumph of antislavery sentiment in Anglo-American culture during the Revolutionary era could lead even the most dedicated slaveholders in the British Empire to pronounce against slavery in the abstract, as South Carolina planter Edward Rutledge did at the Continental Congress in 1776 when he professed that he would be “happy to get rid of the idea of slavery.” On all sides of the conflict there were many who would neither defend slavery morally nor challenge it in practice. For them, the problem of slavery was not only that it was unjust or immoral but also that dependence on it had become a personal and collective political embarrassment. Antislavery declarations served, in this context, to ease the conscience more than to resolve the contradictions between ideology and institutions. Thomas Jefferson, who favored the abolition of slavery and yet opposed the kind of swift and concrete reforms that might have brought about change, stands as the most iconic example of the more general trend. Founders as varied as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and John Jay professed to abhor slavery but in important ways withheld their leadership from the antislavery cause and, like Jefferson, remained slaveholders until their deaths.21

In these quarters, antislavery statements often reflected more a concern for the reputation of Americans than a concern for the welfare of enslaved Africans. It was not easy to denounce the enslavement of the colonies in one moment and then defend property in slaves in the next. Many patriots felt a need to make a statement of some kind about the enslavement of Africans if they wished both enemies and allies to take their invocation of rights and liberties seriously, indeed if they wished to take themselves seriously. As the literary critic Peter Dorsey has explained, “the pressure of debate—rather than deeply felt conviction—persuaded many patriots to speak as they did.”22 So one must resist the inclination to divide the leading figures, and even the broader publics, into antislavery and pro-slavery camps. Patriot slaveholders like Washington and Jefferson were divided even within themselves. And the majority of people living in the British Atlantic world during the Revolutionary era resided in neither camp, or, rather, somewhere along the continuum between them. The effort to find clarity or consistency in the positions of the principal players and the broader publics seeks definition where it largely did not exist. For a great many in Revolutionary America, the problem of slavery needed to be contained, managed, and redirected, since they did not see how it could be effectively resolved.

The Atlantic slave trade, more than slavery itself, was the more consistent object of renunciation. All of the North American colonies stopped importing slaves from Africa as of 1774, at first as one part of the more general nonimportation agreements organized by the Continental Congress and then as a consequence of the broad decline of Atlantic commerce during the Revolutionary War (p. 438) that followed. Only two—South Carolina and Georgia—reopened their ports to the traffic after Yorktown. The refusal elsewhere in North America to receive new slaves from Africa testifies more to the complex economic and ideological needs of the Revolutionary generation than to a turn against slavery itself.23

There were good economic reasons for American colonists to curtail slave imports in the decade before the war. The Chesapeake elite particularly worried about the vast accumulation of debt that followed from the purchase of too many slaves on credit. They knew that restricting the supply of slave labor would bolster the resale value of those who possessed surpluses. Further north, and in Pennsylvania in particular, some worried that an influx of slaves after 1763 had threatened the economic prospects of waged white labor.24

The rejection of the Atlantic slave trade in the late colonial era, though, often owed as much to politics as morals or economics. Slave cargoes numbered among the many goods banned by the colonies during the nonimportation movements that followed the Stamp Act duties, the Townshend Acts, and the Coercive Acts. As a form of protest, stopping the slave trade served the useful purpose of marking out a distinction between American and British identities: British ships brought slaves to the colonies; the American colonists did not want them. In this way, bans on the slave trade took shape as a way to displace moral responsibility for colonial slavery onto Britain, and to cast colonial patriots as innocent victims of a mercantile system that not only enslaved them but led them to enslave others. Prohibiting the importation of slaves allowed Americans to declare their innocence and demonstrate their virtue without much changing their economic system. Refusing the British slave trade to America, Pennsylvania patriot Benjamin Rush explained to Granville Sharp, was part of the colonial challenge to “the monster of British tyranny.”25

This vociferous advocacy of abolitionism impressed observers, both at the time and subsequently. Those in Europe sympathetic to the American Revolution took the antislavery stance of the patriots as evidence of the idealism and Christian philanthropy of the fight for independence. To men like moral philosopher Richard Price, English dissenters who distrusted the British state and opposed the coercion of the colonies, those apparent commitments showed that liberty would find an asylum in America. In America, Price asserted optimistically, slaves “will soon become extinct, or have their condition changed into that of Freemen.”26 The advocates of revolution in America had an interest in encouraging such impressions, and the most hopeful statements about American antislavery ambitions tended to appear in correspondence and publications intended for European audiences. Sometimes these exaggerated statements served to emphasize the distinction between American commitments to liberty and British investments in oppression, as when Thomas Jefferson in 1774 suggested that Americans would emancipate their slaves as soon as the British slave trade had been abolished. More frequently, optimistic suggestions about an imminent end to slavery appeared in documents concerned to secure and sustain the sympathy of international observers. Benjamin Rush, when writing in 1773 to Granville Sharp, opined that abolition sentiment “prevailed in our councils” in Philadelphia. The Virginia elite liked to (p. 439) tell the French nobleman the Marquis de Chastellux during his tour of the state in 1782 that the abolition of slavery would come soon. Thomas Jefferson famously anticipated the emancipation of slaves in the new republic in his Notes on the State of Virginia, a text prepared for a French correspondent concerned about the fate of the new nation after the American War of Independence. Among some, it is true, the turn against slavery was genuine and consequential, as the various schemes for gradual emancipation in the middle and northern states testify. Yet it matters that the most optimistic statements about the abolition of American slavery turn up in those texts more concerned with the reputation of American slaveholders and the new republic than with the problem of slavery itself.27

These tensions in American culture presented an opportunity to the British state and its most ardent defenders in Britain and the colonies. If slaveholding left the southern states peculiarly vulnerable to military action, the institution of slavery left the incipient nation, as a whole, exposed to the charge of hypocrisy. Because few scholars have taken much interest in the ideological opposition to the American Revolution, this aspect of the politics of slavery often has been overlooked. Historians long have known that Samuel Johnson, for example, found it odd that “the loudest yelps of liberty” should come from “the drivers of Negroes.” Johnson’s observation, though, represents just one instance of a much wider trend in the British establishment thought during the Revolutionary crisis. There, the critics of the patriots found in the gap between American rhetoric and American institutions revealing truths about the rebellion in the colonies. The inconsistency on slavery seemed to show that the patriots were not who they said they were. It seemed to suggest that some other motives were at work besides the pursuit of natural liberty and universal rights. These British critics cared even less about the problem of slavery than did the patriots they criticized, who had to live with the contradiction. Yet by insisting that American slaveholding brought American character into question, British thinkers brought into political discourse a new standard for assessing the legitimacy of political protest. They seemed to suggest that slaveholders’ grievances should not be taken too seriously; they were, after all, slaveholders. Loyal planters in the British West Indies would feel the sting of such assumptions in the immediate aftermath of the American War.28

Those in Britain who would condemn American hypocrisy usually wrote as if such inconsistencies belonged exclusively to Americans. That view proved increasingly untenable in the British Isles during the crisis of the Revolution. It had been necessary to pretend that the British state and the British nation held no role in the emergence and growth of American slavery. Even the first antislavery campaigners in Britain—Granville Sharp and James Ramsay—had come to their work through concerns about slavery in the Americas but not with a focus on British contributions to it. The colonial protests against the British slave trade helped some in Britain to see the arbitrary and selective character of condemning Americans alone. The war, and the defeat that followed, generated self-scrutiny. If Americans struggled to define the contours and character of the new nation, some in Britain wondered what had come of their own nation.29

(p. 440) The decade that followed British defeat at Yorktown witnessed a number of official inquiries into the moral character of overseas enterprise. This was unprecedented. Neither Crown nor Parliament had previously shown any interest in the virtue of empire. This time, too, the interest was also short-lived. The French Revolution and the war that followed would direct British energies to imperial aggrandizement rather than self-scrutiny for nearly a quarter century after 1792. Yet, for a time, between 1782 and 1792, recovering from the loss of America seemed to require, at least to a very influential minority within governing circles, new strategies for legitimating the assertion of imperial power, strategies similar to the principled rhetoric that accompanied the American rebellion. Abolition of the British slave trade, declared the Reverend Robert Boucher Nickolls in 1787, would show “to the American states” “that we are no less friendly to liberty than they.” Initially, official interest centered on India, where British outrages appeared even more pronounced. But Quaker abolitionists and aspiring young reformers led by Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce saw in this moment the chance to connect the problem of slavery with the question of British national destiny.30

That possibility had been apparent from the beginning of the war, from the moment that Dunmore offered liberty to those who would help His Majesty’s government preserve its authority in Virginia. British Methodist Thomas Vivian of Cornwood thought that emancipating slaves in North America would “reflect an honor on Great Britain…Supreme to that gained by all her Victories. The persons that shall be instrumental in effecting such a measure will justly be styled the Friends of Mankind.” Concepts of antislavery as national destiny spread among British commanders during the war and crystallized most dramatically with the decision by Guy Carleton to take liberated black loyalists with him to Nova Scotia rather than return them to American slave owners.31 Wartime exigencies, though, would not decide national purpose. It took abolitionist organizing, lobbying, and publishing to establish a firm link between opposition to the slave trade and British national identity. Moreover, in key respects the British campaigns betrayed some of the ambivalences of American attitudes. In Britain too there would be a significant gap between public declarations and official action. Yet in Britain opposition to abolition was centered not only in the economic needs of the West Indian interest but also in the priorities of a powerful centralized state that simultaneously permitted the expression of antislavery opinion and neutered its impact. The Atlantic slave trade and Caribbean slavery looked too closely woven through the fabric of empire to cut away without destroying the whole. As a consequence, once the abolition campaigns began after 1787, there was pride that the British public had spoken loudly and uniformly in opposition to slavery, even if the government itself refused to turn those principles into policies. In Britain, by 1792, slave trade abolition had come to seem like a very good idea whose time had not yet come.32

In the United States, by contrast, antislavery at the national level, if no longer unthinkable, remained unspeakable. The future of slavery was a matter for the states to decide, most everyone in authority agreed both before and after the (p. 441) ratification of the new Constitution in 1788. Even the suggestion that the new federal government might have the power to regulate slavery in some fashion at some future date enraged those in Congress who cared about slavery most. Senators and congressmen representing South Carolina and Georgia denounced even the consideration of antislavery petitions as out of bounds, as sufficient cause for disunion. The official recognition given by the first federal Congress to a 1790 petition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society led the defenders of slavery to wonder if the new national government had been a good idea. That sensitivity taught Congress to avoid all mention of abolition, amelioration, emancipation, or any other subject that might endanger slavery in the new United States for many years after. This meant that organizations like the Pennsylvania Abolition Society lacked the political opening that their London counterparts enjoyed. Because of its long-established institutional legitimacy and security, and because of the broad consensus on both the injustice and the necessity of slavery, Parliament could hear and even encourage abolitionist grievances without either committing to action or endangering its authority.

The United States Congress did not have that luxury, at least not in the very brief period before the Haitian Revolution that further tilted the odds against the abolitionists. There was in the new United States no one like William Wilberforce, who was willing to stake a political career and a public reputation on the abolition of slavery. If British abolitionists threatened the future of British trade, American abolitionists threatened the new and fragile Union. No matter how much a few politicians disliked slavery, nobody wanted that.33

Final Thoughts

What did the American Revolution mean for the institution of slavery? There is no single answer to the question, just as neither the Revolution nor the institution of slavery was singular. In some ways, the tumult of the era inspired a new moral outlook, a revolution in the image of slavery, a revelation in perceptions of individual and collective responsibility, and a new dispensation in the assessment of moral duty. It inspired, in time, the gradual abolition of slavery north of the Chesapeake, establishing the fateful distinction between North and South in the new United States. The northern states came to know themselves as the states that had abolished slavery. Soon, they would forget that they had ever permitted the ownership of slaves at all. The justifications of resistance to tyranny and the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” informed abolitionist rhetoric thereafter, both in the new United States and beyond. As the French Revolution in particular would show, it became difficult after 1776 to declare for universal rights and liberty without appearing to declare on the enslavement of Africans too.34

(p. 442) African Americans in the new United States, both enslaved and free, would find in the American Revolution an unfulfilled promise and would insist upon the antislavery interpretation of the War of Independence. Some abolitionists came to see, though, that the American Revolution, and the new Constitution specifically, set slavery on course for expansion rather than extinction. William Lloyd Garrison famously thought it a slaveholders’ Constitution. It facilitated the extension of slaveholding across the southwestern frontier of the new nation and liberated those states from a powerful centralized government that might end slavery by decree, as happened during the French Revolution in 1794, or by legislation, as occurred in the British Empire in 1833. In this way, southern slaveholders gained with the American Revolution not only independence from Britain but, in crucial respects, independence from a powerful, centralized state.35

Pro-slavery and antislavery partisans would debate the meaning of the American Revolution for the institution of slavery across the decades that followed. Yet the outcome of that divide in the United States, and elsewhere, would depend less and less on the legacies of the American Revolution. Intervening events, such as the Haitian Revolution, the emergence of British supremacy in the Atlantic economies of the nineteenth century, and the dynamics of westward expansion, to name just three, would matter far more. If the War of Independence left slavery as a new kind of problem for the Revolutionary generation, it neither prepared them nor compelled them to chart a new course for the future.


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    Brown, Christopher. Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.Find this resource:

      Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolutions, 1770–1823. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.Find this resource:

        Dorsey, Peter. Common Bondage: Slavery as Metaphor in Revolutionary America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009.Find this resource:

          Egerton, Douglas. Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

            Frey, Sylvia. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

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                Nash, Gary, and Jean B. Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

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                      (1.) For an early, influential account see Winthrop Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 269–426.

                      (2.) Sylvia Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 45–142, Douglas Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 41–64, Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2000), 160–162; Selwynn H. H. Carrington, The Sugar Industry and the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1775–1810 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002), 38–46. The exact number of slaves lost to North American masters during the American Revolution will never be known. The most careful current estimates suggest an upper range of thirty-five thousand: five thousand for Virginia; twenty-five thousand in South Carolina; and five thousand in Georgia. These Virginia and Georgia estimates reflect a degree of scholarly consensus. See, most recently, Cassandra Pybus, “Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., vol. 62, no. 2 (2005): 243–264; and Philip D. Morgan, “Low Country Georgia and the Early Modern Atlantic,” in African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee, ed. Philip D. Morgan (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 36. South Carolina estimates range from thirteen thousand to twenty-five thousand. The higher estimate, which is based on both census records and the observations of contemporaries, appears most reliable. See Philip D. Morgan, “Black Society in the Lowcountry, 1760–1810,” in Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, ed. Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 111; Frey, Water from the Rock, 142; and James Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775–1782 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 323.

                      (3.) O’Shaughnessy, Empire Divided, 81–159.

                      (4.) In addition to the material cited in the previous note see Robert Olwell, “‘Domestick Enemies’: Slavery and Political Independence in South Carolina, May 1775–March 1776,” Journal of Southern History 55, no. 1 (1989): 21–49; Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 133–161; Sally Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Colonies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 154–162; Michael McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 93, 119, 227–228, 389–394, 491; Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King, 81, 121–122, 163–164, 214, 312–314, 324–325; Gregory D. Massey, “The Limits of Antislavery Thought in the Revolutionary South: John Laurens and Henry Laurens,” Journal of Southern History 63, no. 3 (1997): 509–524.

                      (5.) Frey, Water from the Rock, 69–73, 76–77; Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King, 39–44.

                      (6.) Frey, Water from the Rock, 89–96, 125–127, 130–132.

                      (7.) O’Shaughnessy, Empire Divided, 230–232; Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 1775–1783 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 225–232, 258–262, 272–278, 307–314, 319–337, 413–420.

                      (8.) Estimates of the volume of the Atlantic slave trade, here and below, are derived from David Eltis et al., Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, (accessed November 4, 2011).

                      (9.) James A. McMillin, The Final Victims: Foreign Slave Trade to North America, 1783–1810 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), 23.

                      (10.) Jordan, White over Black, 403–422; Timothy James Lockley, Maroon Communities in South Carolina: A Documentary Record (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 39–71.

                      (11.) For two recent accounts that emphasize the impact of slaveholding interests on the Constitutional Convention see David Waldstreicher, Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009), 57–151; and George Van Cleve, A Slaveholder’s Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 103–183.

                      (12.) Lowell Joseph Ragatz, The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763–1833: A Study in Social and Economic History (New York: The Century Co. 1928), 173–203; Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 364–377; Trevor Burnard, “Powerless Masters: The Curious Decline of Jamaican Sugar Planters in the Foundational Period of British Abolitionism,” Slavery and Abolition 32, no. 2 (2011): 185–198.

                      (13.) John Jay to Egbert Benson, September 18, 1780, Papers of John Jay, Columbia University, Butler Library, Rare Book and Manuscript Division.

                      (14.) Sydney James, A People among Peoples: Quaker Benevolence in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1963); David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 213–232; Jack Marietta, The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748–1783 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984); Jean B. Soderlund, Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

                      (15.) Maurice Jackson, Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Jonathan Sassi, “With a Little Help from the Friends: The Quaker and Tactical Contexts of Anthony Benezet’s Abolitionist Publishing,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 135, no. 1 (2011): 33–71.

                      (16.) Davis, Problem of Slavery, 216–218; Brown, Moral Capital, 391–433; Kirsten Sword, “Remembering Dinah Nevil: Strategic Deceptions in Eighteenth-Century Antislavery,” Journal of American History 97, no. 2 (2010): 315–343.

                      (17.) For the impact of the Somerset case on antislavery in North America see particularly Patricia Bradley, Slavery, Propaganda and the American Revolution (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998); Van Cleve, Slaveholders’ Union, 31–40, 50–56; and Sword, “Remembering Dinah Nevil,” 321–333. For the fight against slavery through the courts and through the promotion of manumission, in addition to Sword’s “Remembering Dinah Nevil” see Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Emily Blanck, “Seventeen Eighty-Three: The Turning Point of the Law of Slavery and Freedom in Massachusetts,” New England Quarterly 75, no. 1 (2002): 24–51; John Wood Sweet, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730–1830 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 240–251; David N. Gellman, Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777–1827 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press 2006), 56–77; Eva Sheppard Wolf, Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 28–35.

                      (18.) See Gellman, Emancipating New York, for the work and composition of the New York Manumission Society. For the early labors of the new Pennsylvania Abolition Society see Richard S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 16–38. For the establishment of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and its early work see J. R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade, 1787–1807 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 75–124.

                      (19.) This aspect of the subject received particular emphasis among the first generation of scholars interested in the relationship between antislavery and the American Revolution. See, for example, Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 232–246; Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1967), 93–108; Jordan, White over Black, 276–304, 308–311; Duncan J. Macleod, Slavery, Race, and the American Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974); and James D. Essig, The Bonds of Wickedness: American Evangelicals against Slavery, 1770–1808 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982).

                      (20.) The slow death of slavery in the northern states is summarized well in Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 230–239. For a recent overview of postwar manumission in the upper South, and the place of antislavery sentiment in that process, see Egerton, Death or Liberty, 122–147. Also see Eva Sheppard Wolf, “Manumission and the Two-Race System in Early National Virginia,” in Paths to Freedom: Manumission in the Atlantic World, ed. Rosemary Brana-Shute and Randy J. Sparks (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 309–337.

                      (21.) Edward Rutledge cited in Robin L. Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 123. From the voluminous and growing literature on slavery and the founders see particularly, for the figures cited here, Ari Helo and Peter Onuf, “Jefferson, Morality, and the Problem of Slavery,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., vol. 60, no. 3 (July 2003): 583–614; Philip D. Morgan, “‘To Get Quit of Negroes’: George Washington and Slavery,” Journal of American Studies 39, no. 3 (2005): 403–429; David Waldstreicher, Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution (New York: Hill & Wang, 2004): 210–239; Gregory D. Massey, “The Limits of Antislavery Thought in the Revolutionary Lower South,” Journal of Southern History 63 (1997): 495–530; Daniel C. Littlefield, “John Jay, the Revolutionary Generation, and Slavery,” New York History 81, no. 1 (2000): 91–132.

                      (22.) Peter Dorsey, “‘To Corroborate Our Own Claims’: Public Positioning and the Slavery Metaphor in Revolutionary America,” American Quarterly 55, no. 3 (2005): 377; and, more broadly, Dorsey, Common Bondage: Slavery as Metaphor in Revolutionary America (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009), 101–119.

                      (23.) The most comprehensive account of the Revolutionary-era restrictions on slave imports remains W. E. B. Dubois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 (New York: Longman, Greens, and Co., 1896), chaps. 2–5.

                      (24.) Bruce A. Ragsdale, A Planter’s Republic: The Search for Economic Independence in Revolutionary Virginia (Madison, WI: Madison House, 1996), 111–122, 128–135; Nash and Soderlund, Freedom by Degrees, 128–135.

                      (25.) Brown, Moral Capital, 134–143. Benjamin Rush to Granville Sharp, October 29, 1773, in John Woods, ed., “The Correspondence of Benjamin Rush and Granville Sharp, 1773–1809,” Journal of American Studies 1 (1967): 3.

                      (26.) Richard Price, Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, the Principles of Government, and the Justice and Policy of War with America…, 3rd ed. (London: Printed for T. Cadell, 1776), 41n; Brown, Moral Capital, 145–149; Anthony Page, “‘A Species of Slavery’: Richard Price’s Rational Dissent and Antislavery,” Slavery and Abolition 32, no. 1 (March 2011): 53–73.

                      (27.) [Thomas Jefferson], A Summary View of the Rights of British America (Williamsburg, VA, 1774), 15; Benjamin Rush to Granville Sharp, November 1, 1774, in Woods, “Correspondence of Benjamin Rush and Granville Sharp,” 13; Travels in North America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782, By the Marquis de Chastellux, One of Forty Members of the French Academy, and Major General in the French Army, serving under the Count De Rochambeau….(Dublin: Printed for Messrs. Colles, Moncrieffe, White, H. Whitestone, Byrne, Cash, Marchbank, Heery, and Moore, 1787), 2:196–197; Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, written in the year 1781, somewhat corrected and enlarged in the winter of 1782, for the use of a foreigner of distinction (Paris: s n,1782).

                      (28.) Samuel Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny; an Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress (London: Printed for T. Cadell, 1775); Brown, Moral Capital, 114–134. For loyalist denunciations of slaveholding patriots see Dorsey, Common Bondage, 75–99.

                      (29.) Brown, Moral Capital, 155–206.

                      (30.) Margaret M. R. Kellow, “‘We Are No Less Friendly to Liberty than They’: British Antislavery Activists Respond to the Crisis in the American Colonies,” in English Atlantics Revisited: Essays Honouring Professor Ian K. Steele, ed. Nancy L. Rhoden(Montreal: Mcgill-Queens University Press, 2007), 450–473, Robert Boucher Nickolls cited on 459; Brown, Moral Capital, 203–206, 334–389, 433–450.

                      (31.) Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Quest for Global Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 57-71.

                      (32.) Davis, Problem of Slavery, 420–439.

                      (33.) Howard A. Ohline, “Slavery, Economics, and Congressional Politics, 1790,” Journal of Southern History 46, no. 3 (1980): 335–360; William C. diGiancomantonio, “‘For the Gratification of a Volunteering Society’: Antislavery and Pressure Group Politics in the First Federal Congress,” Journal of the Early Republic 15, no. 2 (1995): 169–197; Richard S. Newman, “Prelude to the Gag Rule: Southern Reactions to Antislavery Petitions in the First Federal Congress,” Journal of the Early Republic 16, no. 4 (1996): 571–599; Van Cleve, Slaveholder’s Union, 191–203; John P. Kaminski, ed., A Necessary Evil? Slavery and the Debate over the Constitution (Madison, WI: Madison House Publishers 1995), 210–230; Seymour Drescher, “Divergent Paths: The Anglo-American Abolitions of the Atlantic Slave Trade,” in Migration, Trade, and Slavery in an Expanding World: Essays in Honor of Pieter Emmer, ed. Wim Klooster (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 267–271.

                      (34.) On historical amnesia with respect to slavery in the North see, particularly, Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998). For the relationship between the language of rights in France and in the French Caribbean see Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

                      (35.) Benjamin Quarles, “The Revolutionary War as a Black Declaration of Independence,” and David Brion Davis, “American Slavery and the American Revolution,” in Berlin and Hoffman, Slavery and Freedom, 262–280, 283–301.