Book Reviews - Winter 2023

Our Founding Contradiction

The entrenched dichotomy at the center of the national story

By Fergus M. Bordewich | December 1, 2022
Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819 (Wikimedia Commons)
Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819 (Wikimedia Commons)

American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765–1795 by Edward J. Larson; W.W. Norton, 368 pp., $32.50

Early in this compelling account of the tangled relationship between liberty and slavery, Edward J. Larson, a professor of history at Pepperdine University, cites the chaotic 1770 riot known as the Boston Massacre. Six Bostonians protesting import duties were shot dead by British soldiers, who later went on trial for murder. The killings became a rallying cry for American patriots who viewed the incident as proof of the Crown’s determination to “enslave” freeborn, white Americans by depriving them of their liberties. The soldiers were defended by the young John Adams, an antislavery patriot who nonetheless argued in court that the soldiers had been provoked by one of the dead men, a mixed-race sailor named Crispus Attucks, whom Adams described disdainfully as “a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person” and whose “mad behaviour” allegedly caused the carnage. Adams won his case, but only by manipulating the evidence in overtly racist terms.

Many such paradoxes anchor American Inheritance, in which Larson asserts that slavery consistently shaped the thinking of the nation’s founders in complex and insufficiently acknowledged ways, whether as a matter of self-interest, philosophy, or politics. His engaging narrative takes readers from the gathering protests against taxation, through the Revolutionary War, to the Constitutional Convention and ratification, to the abortive attempt by Quaker lobbyists to persuade the First Congress to legislate against slavery. Much of this story will be familiar to readers of early American history; perhaps less familiar will be Larson’s careful retelling of the erosion of slavery’s protections in Britain during the 18th century, culminating in the Somerset case of 1772, which effectively terminated slavery there. The case centered on a recaptured fugitive, James Somerset, whom abolitionists saved from being remanded to his former owner. In his landmark decision, the presiding judge, Lord Mansfield, who, Larson writes, “loathed destroying the property rights of colonial slaveholders living in Britain,” nevertheless refused to normalize slavery in Britain itself, declaring that slavery “is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.” After Somerset, freedom suits rapidly multiplied in colonial courts.

Before the Revolution, slavery existed in every colony from Georgia to New Hampshire. Independence-minded Americans heavily exploited the metaphor of slavery to fire up resentment toward the Crown. “Patriot invocations of slavery were often not philosophical arguments based on abstract notions of freemen in a state of nature,” writes Larson. “They were intensely emotional appeals that relied for their force on a familiarity with chattel slavery and an equation of Blacks with such bondage.” As George Washington put it, “Those from whom we have a right to Seek protection are endeavouring by every piece of Art & despotism to fix the Shackles of Slavry upon us.” John Adams was pithier: “We won’t be their negroes.”

In the North, the idealistic assertion of individual liberty eventually led to the recognition that Black slaves must also have natural rights and therefore deserve emancipation. In the South, however, the celebration of liberty led inexorably to a defense of the right to private property in the form of enslaved Africans. “During the Revolutionary era, ‘liberty’ to some meant the freedom of all people; to others it meant the freedom to own Black people,” writes Larson.

The war violently disrupted colonial slavery. Enslaved people fled en masse to safety within British lines, where commanders enrolled thousands of them—including one of George Washington’s slaves—in military units, albeit mostly as manual laborers. Although both free and enslaved Blacks stood with the rebels at Lexington and Bunker Hill, Washington shunned arming them as a matter of policy until later in the war, when desperate manpower shortages compelled him to relent. By the end of the war, Black soldiers may have accounted for
10 percent of the entire Continental Army and as much as a quarter of all troops in some areas. Blacks and whites would not again serve together in integrated units until after World War II.

Meanwhile, a massive public shift in the moral perception of slavery had taken place. Hopeful Blacks and antislavery whites increasingly begged lawmakers to address the rights of the enslaved. “To Be sold Like Beast of Burthen & Like them Condemnd to Slavery for Life is far worse than Nonexistence,” declared one group of Black Boston petitioners shortly before the state constitution, in 1780, ruled slavery out of existence. Slavery soon disappeared in New England and went into rapid decline elsewhere in the North. In Philadelphia, it was said that anyone who dared to defend slavery was “listened to with horror, and his company avoided by everybody.”

As Maryland delegate Luther Martin reported, so fraught was the contradiction between liberty and slavery at the Constitutional Convention that the delegates “anxiously sought to avoid the admissions of expressions which might be odious to the ears of Americans, although they were willing to admit into their system those things which the expressions signified.” Rhetorical delicacy aside, the sectional schism over slavery continued to widen. James Madison wrote of the convention: “The States were divided into different interests not by their difference of size, but … from the effects of having or not having slaves.” Madison himself embodied the very problem he described: an opponent of slavery in principle, he presided over more than a hundred enslaved men, women, and children at his property in Virginia. Institutionally, the dilemma took the form of the infamous compromise that granted slave states bonus representation in the House of Representatives for three-fifths of their enslaved population, an arrangement that placated the slave states enough to win their support for the Constitution.

It would take a civil war to resolve the nation’s contradictory heritage. Yet the entrenched dichotomy between liberty and slavery still casts its shadow over what Larson calls the “partisan minefield” of American history. Today, rival camps of scholars are at odds over how to interpret this history: one side asserts that slavery must be seen as the driving engine of the national project; the other seeks a return to a more celebratory and sanitized version of the American past. Larson is a judicious and often eloquent guide through the thicket, making a persuasive case that both liberty and slavery, real and imagined, cannot be untangled from the thinking of the founders, the institutions they created, and the ways in which Americans understood their society. They form, he says, “two intertwining strands of the national DNA.”

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