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The Long Trek to Freedom


Before the middle of the eighteenth century, slavery was generally accepted in Europe and its colonies as a divinely ordained punishment for original sin or simply as a natural part of the eternal order of things. Yet by then Europeans had stopped enslaving one another for centuries; slavery was a condition mainly imposed on blacks brought from Africa to the New World in order to produce tropical staples for European consumption. England and France in particular had an enormous stake in the slave trade and the plantation system, which were primary sources of prosperity and commercial development for both countries. But very few black slaves were to be found in either England or France, and it was an open question whether slavery could still be enforced in either country.1 Restricting slavery to particular races and regions opened it to criticism because it deviated from norms in European countries; but, paradoxically, it also meant that those who had little direct contact with slavery could easily put it out of their minds.

The ideas of the Enlightenment were bound to raise fundamental questions whether slavery and the slave trade were compatible with the new ideals of liberty, equality, and rationality. In his 1748 Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu considered various justifications for slavery, including the alleged subhumanity of blacks, and showed how unreasonable they were. But the Enlightenment was a two-edged weapon when applied to the kind of servitude that existed in the eighteenth century. While Enlightenment thinkers developed a conception of universal human rights, they also studied and classified the physical variations among human beings and thus laid the foundations for a concept of biological race that could be used to establish new hierarchies. It became possible to justify slavery on grounds of alleged scientific fact rather than divine fiat, owing to the new sciences of comparative anatomy and physical anthropology. Several prominent Enlightenment thinkers who at times had qualms about slavery, such as Voltaire, Hume, and Jefferson, were convinced that blacks were much inferior to whites in their rational capacities—a belief that allowed apologists for the institution, such as the Jamaican planter Edward Long, to develop a modern and “scientific” defense of black servitude. Enlightenment theories, depending on how they were interpreted and applied, could condemn slavery as a denial of the rights of humanity or defend it as consistent with science and rationality.

As the books under review by Steven M. Wise, Andrew Levy, and Fergus M. Bordewich make clear, the strongest and most effective opposition to slavery did not come from Enlightenment rationalists but from religious zealots who were inspired by the evangelical or pietistic revivals and the “awakenings” that began in the eighteenth century and continued into the nineteenth. These men of faith discovered that slavery was not just ideologically questionable but contrary to the will of God—a sin that could no longer be tolerated by believing Christians.

Evangelical concern for the souls of enslaved Africans became evident before any visible hostility to the institution itself. The most active and successful missionaries to the slaves of the New World were the Moravians, members of a pietistic sect of Czech and German origin, who were successful in improving the condition of some slaves precisely because they made it clear that they were not opposed to black slavery in principle. They were able to persuade slave owners that they would not harm their interests and in doing so were able to gain influence in places like the Danish West Indies and North Carolina, partly because they conceded that the Bible sanctioned the servitude of Africans even after they had been baptized. But they argued that the divinely ordained status of blacks as “hewers of wood and carriers of water” did not preclude a degree of spiritual equality with whites that required kindly treatment from masters and sometimes even led to the full integration of religious worship.2

The pioneers of religious opposition to slavery were the Quakers. From their base in Pennsylvania, mid-to-late-eighteenth-century Quakers set in motion the American antislavery movement, first within their own community, and then more broadly in the Anglo-American world. Since they were pacifists, the Quakers had no weapons other than peaceful persuasion, but this was enough to make slaveholding incompatible with membership in the Society of Friends. The foremost Quaker exponent of abolishing slavery was Anthony Benezet, whose influence extended from Pennsylvania across the Atlantic. Benezet was a major inspiration for the first important British abolitionist, Granville Sharpe, the main character of Steven M. Wise’s book Though the Heavens May Fall, which is a thorough and convincing account of the case that led to the official banning of slavery in England in 1772.

Sharpe was not a Quaker himself; in fact he was a highly orthodox member of the Church of England who had strong prejudices against Catholics and Protestant dissenters alike. Wise goes so far as to call him “a religious bigot.” But his tireless and ultimately successful effort to end slavery in England was dictated by a conviction that slavery was contrary to scripture. Whereas other biblical literalists found a sanction in holy writ for black servitude, Sharpe found the contrary. His main weapon against it was the English common law. Although not a lawyer himself, he was the prime mover in a series of court actions that led ultimately in 1772 to the decision by Lord Mansfield, chief justice of the King’s Bench, that slavery could not exist in the “free air of England.”

No one knows how many black slaves there were in England at the time. Estimates of the total run from as low as 3,000 to as high as 40,000; approximately 15,000 seems a reasonable guess. Most of these slaves had been imported from the West Indies or North America by their masters, who expected to be obeyed and served as they had been in the colonies. But unlike Virginia or Jamaica, England did not have slave markets or public authorities clearly empowered to apprehend fugitives and return them to their owners. Consequently, many slaves simply deserted their masters and went to live independently in “free black” enclaves, the largest of which, by far, was in London. Sharpe came into the picture most often when masters sought to capture their vagrant human property and ship slaves back to the colonies for their own use or for sale to someone else. He and his associates used writs of habeas corpus to prevent such actions by slave owners and then went on to prosecute some masters for physically assaulting their slaves while seizing them and trying to hustle them on board ships bound for Jamaica or Virginia.

In the first case of this kind that came before Lord Mansfield, the lawyers engaged by Sharpe succeeded in getting a judgment that freed their client but only on the grounds that his status as a slave had not been established. In the subsequent case of 1772, however, there was no doubt that James Somerset, who had been plucked off a ship bound for the West Indies, was legally a slave under colonial law. Here Mansfield faced squarely the issue of whether slavery and English residence were compatible. Dismissing precedents based on villeinage, a medieval form of lifetime servitude that had never been outlawed but which no longer existed in practice, Mansfield found no basis for human property under British common law. “The power of a master over his slave has been different in different counties,” he concluded.

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only positive law…. It is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.

In other words, if the British wanted slavery, Parliament would have to legislate it. Such a denial of the legitimacy of English slavery pointed to the subsequent campaign against the slave trade and ultimately against slavery itself in the British colonies.3

In 1772, with the American Revolution only a few years away, slavery was legal in all of the American colonies. The struggle for American independence on the grounds specified in the Declaration of Independence cast doubt on the future of slavery. How could a nation that proclaimed that “all men are created equal” enslave some of them? There was a strong presumption during and immediately after the Revolution that slavery was an unjust and harmful institution and that its days were numbered.

It was not only the injustice of slavery that counted against it, but the fact that slavery was seen as having introduced an inherently alien and potentially dangerous black population in-to what many hoped would become a white man’s country (once the Indians were disposed of, that is). Particu-larly after the uprising in Haiti in the 1790s, the fear of a widespread slave rebellion served as a major impetus to thinking about how to eradicate slavery. Thomas Jefferson objected to it because of its harmful effect on both races and favored emancipation in principle; but he could not imag-ine slaves being emancipated without the deportation or “colonization” of the freed black population. Lord Mansfield’s decision did not turn Eng-land itself into a multihued or multiracial nation, as emancipation without colonization would do to the United States.

A lack of such population pressures in the northern states and a limited economic stake in slave labor there led to the gradual emancipation of slaves in those states beginning in the 1780s and 1790s. But south of what became the Mason-Dixon Line antislavery sentiment flickered and then died around the turn of the century. Adam Rothman’s Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South is the fullest account we have of how slaveholding in the southern states became not only acceptable but also a source of pride and celebration.

The critical factor, as Rothman’s subtitle indicates, was the acquisition of vast new territories suitable for plantation agriculture, especially for the growing of short-staple cotton, a commodity much in demand for the industrial revolution in Great Britain and the northeastern United States. A flourishing Cotton Kingdom arose in the nineteenth century as the US government obtained the territories that became the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana from France and Spain and crushed the Indian resistance in the new Southwest.

Fears that an excess of black people in the seaboard states would lead to a slave rebellion were among the factors that led Congress to abolish the slave trade by 1807. But the question remained where the additional slaves needed in the new territories would come from. The need was met by natural increase in the numbers of slaves and by internal migration. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the New World, North American slaves more than reproduced themselves, and the surplus of slaves beyond the labor needs of the states where they were born could be sent westward to man the new cotton plantations, whose prosperity depended on good soil, two hundred frost-free days, and the cotton gin—all of which were available after 1800.

  1. 1

    On France see Sue Peabody, “There Are No Slaves in France”: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime (Oxford University Press, 1996).

  2. 2

    On the Moravians see two excellent studies by Jon F. Sensbach, A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763–1840 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998) and Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2005).

  3. 3

    For a full account of this campaign see Adam Hochschild’s recent narrative history, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

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