It must be said immediately that its first two volumes get The Oxford History of the British Empire off to a strong start.* Both books consist of essays that break much new ground and do so with a confidence based on extensive research and with refreshing lucidity and frankness. The authors, rightly, often use direct quotation. There is none of that extensive resort to paraphrase, which can so easily be used to inflect an account in a particular direction that the documents in question, when directly examined, fail to sustain. The most flagrant effort in this respect in modern American historiography was Dumas Malone’s six-volume Life of Thomas Jefferson. With copious resort to paraphrase, Malone managed to produce a sanitized and sanctified Jefferson, one not borne out by the original documents once they were carefully scrutinized. There has been quite a lot of that kind of writing, but there is none of it in these volumes.

These two books are likely to shock some of their readers. For example, the sentimentalized and idealized version of American history, which luxuriates in popular works and is more subtly present in much academic history, finds no favor with the contributors to these volumes. This is very clear in the matter of the dealings of the settlers with the native inhabitants of the American colonies. Consider, for example, Anthony Pagden’s account of the different approaches of three sets of European colonizers:

The Spanish sought to integrate the Indians into a miscegenated society, albeit at the lowest possible social level, and the French attempted to “Frenchify” their indigenes. The English, after decades of moralizing, sought only to exclude the Indians or, where expedient, to annihilate them.

Pagden also writes that

Early contacts, which had made the settlers dependent upon native agriculture, soon gave way to policies of either segregation or, when the Native Americans seemed to threaten the existence of the settlements, attempted genocide.

The attempted genocide was mostly the work of the settlers, but it was justified by respected British commentators. Pagden quotes Locke’s presentation of the comparative rights of European settlers and of American natives:

The association between the historical need to press the claim to res nullius, and what is sometimes called “the agriculturalist argument” became, in effect, the basis for most English attempts to legitimate their presence in America. That so many of the examples Locke uses in his Second Treatise are American ones shows that his intention was to provide the settlers, for whom he had worked in so many other ways, with a powerful argument based in natural law rather than legislative decree to justify their depredations.

Also, Pagden observes, “since any man who refused to accept the Europeans’ right to appropriate ‘vacant’ lands was in defiance of the natural law, he might [wrote Locke] ‘be destroyed as a Lyon or a Tyger, or one of those wild Savage Beasts, with whom Men can have no Society nor Security.”‘ Similarly the eminent British jurist Sir Edward Coke held that infidels were aliens, perpetui enimici, “perpetual enemies,” “for between them, as with devils, whose subjects they be, and the Christians there is perpetual hostility, and can be no peace.”

In another essay Peter Mancall quotes the account by Plymouth’s governor, William Bradford, of a massacre of Pequots: “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and stench thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.”

The period of the most ferocious doctrines—and practices—on the part of the settlers toward the natives was about the middle of the seventeenth century, when the settlers were already fairly solidly installed, but the natives were still strong enough to obstruct and sometimes threaten the settlement. In the early periods of the settlement, when the settlers needed to conciliate the natives, the tone of the settlers is understandably propitiatory. At a much later period, in the eighteenth century, when Indians are no longer a threat (except in the West), references to them are more relaxed. But in the crucial period—namely the first half of the seventeenth century—the pressure is toward genocide.

The first volumes also devote much more attention than previous histories have done to the growth and fate of America’s black population. I propose here to follow up this theme in some detail, both for its intrinsic interest and as illustrating the richness and depth of the historical work involved in these two volumes. James Horn, examining “Tobacco Colonies: The Shaping of English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake,” writes:

The size of the black population was initially small, no more than a few hundred before 1650, but from the 1680s, as the supply of [white] indentured servants began to decline, numbers increased rapidly to about 13,000 by 1700 (13 percent of the total population). Apart from emigrants from London or Bristol, most settlers probably encountered blacks for the first time in the Chesapeake, and in this context made the “indelible connection” between slavery and race. Yet the response to blacks in an everyday context was more complex than the general framework of prejudice and the institution of slavery might imply. Especially in the early years of settlement, when numbers were small and blacks worked alongside servants and masters to bring in the tobacco crop, relations between the two races may have been relatively relaxed. Occasionally slaves were freed or purchased their liberty, and some acquired property and were able to live peaceably side-by-side with their white neighbours. The limited opportunities for blacks, slave or free, to improve their condition in this period should not be exaggerated, however.

From the 1660s, when Virginia began legislating “stringent racial laws” to regulate black-white relations, conditions for blacks began to deteriorate sharply. Mass shipments of slaves after 1660 and their changing origin (brought directly from Africa rather than from the Caribbean) served to intensify discriminating legislation and further debase the status of blacks.


Hilary McD. Beckles writes of the condition of black slaves in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century:

Sugar meant slaves, and in the Lesser Antilles, as in Hispaniola and Brazil, it meant black slaves. Those acquainted with sugar production in Brazil would have known that the work regime was so severe that it would not be endured by any free labour force, and that planters had resortedto slaves imported from Africa…. Workers were required not only to clear the ground of lush natural vegetation, and to sow, tend, and harvest the sugar cane in the tropical sun, but also immediately to crush the juice from the cane in a sugar mill and then to boil the juice in cauldrons before it had time to ferment….

By 1660 the African slave trade was the “life line” of the Caribbean economy. In 1645, some two years after the beginning of sugar production, Barbados had only 5,680 slaves; in 1698 it had 42,000 slaves…. The mortality of these slaves was high. Overwork, malnutrition, resistance, all contributed to this. The planters therefore needed an annual input of fresh slaves to keep up their stock.

By the late seventeenth century, the slave trade had become central to economic development in the New World, with royal support from Britain. John C. Appleby writes of

the development of a powerful syndicate linking prominent city merchants with leading naval officials and well-placed courtiers. The Queen was also an investor in several of these ventures, providing unprecedented royal support for such an aggressive challenge to Portuguese trade in Africa.

Both the Portuguese trade in question and the British challenge to it were overwhelmingly a trade in slaves.


Opposition to slavery was slow in developing. The editor of The Eighteenth Century, P.J. Marshall, says in his introduction, referring to North America: “There was little opposition from British opinion either to the trade in slaves or to the institution of slavery before the rise of the popular anti-slavery movement in the 1780s.”

Yet well before that, in 1698, with the establishment of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, concern for the treatment of slaves began to emerge and became a force among evangelicals, both in Britain and America. In his essay “Religious Faith and Commercial Empire,” Boyd Stanley Schlenther writes: “No other agency throughout the Imperial eighteenth century worked as assiduously to convert and secure humane treatment for the victims of slavery. This activity was most pronounced where it was most needed: in the plantation colonies of the mainland south and on the islands.”

Some Quakers had been active directly against slavery well before 1698, though some Quakers were also slave owners. Ned C. Landsman writes (in Volume 1):

The same well-to-do merchants who claimed authority within the quarterly and yearly Meetings were also among the leading Quaker slave-holders. Yet from the very beginning some Friends questioned that trade. As early as 1676 the English Quaker William Edmundson, then at Newport, Rhode Island, recorded the first such attack on slavery, among the very first anti-slavery statements to appear in English America. The first such pronouncement to appear in Pennsylvania appeared in 1688, signed by four Germantown Friends, on the grounds that slavery violated the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would that they should do unto you”), encouraged sinful rather than Christian behaviour, and was founded on violence.

It was not, however, until the last quarter of the eighteenth century that the decisive turn took place toward the abolition first of the slave trade and then of slavery itself within the British dominions, which, of course, after 1783, no longer included what had been Britain’s Thirteen Colonies and had now become the United States of America.


Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776, played a decisive part in the movement of enlightened opinion in Britain against slavery. And the influence of Adam Smith worked in conjunction with the evangelical movement toward the eventual abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the British dominions (what remained of these after 1783). Writing about the antislavery movement in the West Indies—where the densest slave populations by then were—Boyd Stanley Schlenther has this to say:

[In the West Indies] it was the status of the slaves which constituted the continuing challenge to the churches. In the face of a generally quiescent Anglican establishment that was loath to undermine the plantation economy, it was the activities of evangelical Christians that would contribute to change. The Moravians, taking full advantage of their freedom of movement and action within the British Empire, had established a mission to slaves on Jamaica in the 1750s. Now, thirty years later, Wesleyan Methodists, led by Thomas Coke, commenced similar activities throughout the West Indies. These religious impulses, together with the implications of radical political ideas emphasizing human freedom, coalesced with the economic arguments of men such as Adam Smith—which challenged slavery as a negation of free trade and commerce—to contribute to the abolition of the slave trade and, ultimately, [of] slavery itself in the West Indies.

Adam Smith’s pivotal influence is also acknowledged by J.R. Ward, first referring again to the West Indies and then more widely:

A more fundamental challenge to the West Indians’ political standing came from the thesis elaborated by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), that artificially promoted colonies and the associated structure of regulated trade diverted resources which might better be deployed at home. Some time would lapse before Smith’s arguments affected the specific detail of commercial policy, but they quickly achieved great intellectual prestige, and by his remarks on the economic disadvantages of slave labour he contrib-uted to a powerful social movement that offered the planters a more immediate threat.

Antislavery doctrine was gaining a limited circulation by the 1760s. In 1787 a vigorous public movement was launched to abolish the British slave trade from Africa, as the first step toward reforming and eventually eliminating the West Indian slave labor regime. In 1788 Parliament voted to regulate conditions on the slave ships. In 1792 a bill for gradual abolition passed the Commons but was rejected by the Lords. Abolition was finally enacted in 1807, and no significant deliveries of new African slaves reached the British West Indies after 1808.

Something needs to be added about the political situation in Britain in which the turn against slavery occurred. The best minds in the British Parliament were strongly influenced by The Wealth of Nations, which Edmund Burke called “probably the most important book ever written.” Burke, Fox, and Pitt—men widely separated in their politics in the 1790s—all supported the abolition of the slave trade. At a much earlier period, in 1765, Burke had opposed a proposal for seating American elected representatives in the House of Commons because these would include slave owners: “Common sense, even self-preservation, seems to forbid that those who allow themselves an unlimited right over the liberties and lives of others, should have any share in making laws for those who have long renounced such injust [sic] and cruel distinctions.”

J.R. Ward considers an important objection to the view that the weakening of slavery was due primarily to “a public affected by a general growth in philanthropic sentiment.” Ward writes:

The most celebrated challenge to this “moral” interpretation of abolitionism was made by Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, which argued that while individual campaigners such as William Wilberforce may have been sincere in professing humanitarian concern, their cause only prevailed because it served national economic interests. According to Williams, by the later eighteenth century the British West Indian sugar colonies, their soils exhausted after decades of monoculture, had become hopelessly uncompetitive with the French islands. So initially many British politicians favoured abolition in the hope that it could be applied generally.

Ward is skeptical about Williams’s thesis, but he is also rather skeptical about theories that emphasize a shift in moral values. He acknowledges that

eighteenth-century British empirical philosophy put special emphasis on sympathy and fellow-feeling between individuals as the basis for ethical behaviour. This notion of “benevolence” was hard to reconcile with slavery. Theologians developed the argument that God revealed his purpose to mankind in stages, so the slave-holding sanctioned in biblical times might no longer be tolerable. Such ideas were common themes of European Enlightenment thought, but they gained their widest currency in Britain through the evangelical movements that affected the established church and the main Dissenting sects.

Ward allows some weight to this interpretation, but on the whole he is skeptical about it. He writes:

Yet while in Britain abolitionism certainly became a popular cause, to a degree unmatched elsewhere, the fact remains that the decision to end the slave trade was taken by Parliament, where evangelicalism was only a minority sentiment and where practical, strategic considerations were paramount. The widespread enthusiasm for abolition had some influence, but on this issue legislators did not feel themselves to be under irresistible pressure from agitation “out of doors” as would be the case with electoral reform in 1832, and with slave emancipation in 1833.

Ward’s interpretation of parliamentary motivation, I think, is too narrow and mechanical. Parliamentarians would have tended to share views that were prevalent among the educated classes, to which they belonged, and these included an aversion to slavery, both on the part of evangelicals and on the part of the growing number of the middle class who were affected by Enlightenment values.

Broadly speaking, what Adam Smith was telling those whom he influenced was that pushing people around was often unrewarding even for the pushers. Some people were undoubtedly influenced by all these currents: Burke was inclined to an ecumenical version of revealed religion and to a specifically English version of Enlightenment values, and he was an ardent disciple of Adam Smith. All these strains led him to condemn and oppose the slave trade and slavery. Burke was unusual in many ways, but he was certainly not unique among the parliamentarians of his day in being influenced by some combination of these currents in coming to oppose the slave trade and slavery.


I have concentrated here on the handling of the issues of treatment of Indians and of slavery for two main reasons. The first is that to follow the treatment of a limited number of selected and relevant issues in a significant number of individual essays, with quotations, seems to me a good way of illustrating the richness of the text and the consistently high quality of the writing and reasoning. The second is that the treatment of these issues sheds much more light on dark aspects of American history than popular versions of American and British historiography do, and also rather more light than many more serious accounts of American and British history, aimed at the general reader, manage to shed.

American historiography, for the period of the Founding Fathers, has long had a tendency to emphasize what is called “civic religion,” an alleged consensus on public values. And “civic religion” has had a corrupting and euphemizing influence on historiography. The darker side of history tends to be phased out, to such an extent that the examination, in these volumes, of the treatment of native Indians and slaves is likely to shock some American readers.

In the development of the American civic religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Thomas Jefferson has played a central role and has been idealized in the process. The spotlight has been on the benign things that Jefferson said, from time to time, about—for example—Indians and slaves and not on what he actually did, and refrained from doing. He said many benign things about American Indians, on familiar “noble redman” lines. But his instructions to American officials dealing with Indians were free from such sentimentality. Finding that such officials were trying to check the access of Indians to firewater, in order to save their lives, he instructed such officials to desist from such interference with the natural course of things. The sooner the Indians died out, or at least declined into helplessness, the better it would be. The custodians of the civic religion tended to dwell on the nice things he said and to ignore the lethal harshness of his actual policy.

The same is true, to a more dramatic extent, about his policy toward blacks. The Jefferson who became a deity of the civic religion was notably compassionate and benign. The locus classicus for this view is the inscription on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the two-hundredth anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, April 13, 1943. According to the official brochure: “Inscriptions at the memorial were selected by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission and were taken from a wide variety of his writings on freedom, slavery, education and government.” The section of the inscriptions that deals with freedom and slavery runs as follows:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?

Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep for ever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.

All of this passage except for the last sentence is taken from Notes on the State of Virginia. The last sentence, which is taken from Jefferson’s Autobiography, continues: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Native habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”

In my book The Long Affair I commented on that distortion:

In short, these people are to be free, and then deported. Jefferson’s teaching on that matter is quite clear and often repeated.

Those who edited that inscription on behalf of the Jefferson Memorial Commission must have known what they were doing when they wrenched that resounding sentence from the Autobiography out of the context which so drastically qualifies its meaning. The distortion, by suppression, has to be deliberate.

In that inscription on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. the liberal-Jeffersonian lie about Jefferson’s position on liberty and slavery assumes, literally, monumental proportions.

It must be acknowledged that Roosevelt and his collaborators had powerful reasons for assenting to that distortion. America was then at war with Nazi Germany. To inculcate national unity, and discourage regional and racial discord, was then of fundamental importance. So to present the great Virginian as a champion of black people in the United States must have seemed a salutary unifying myth.

Eighty-four years earlier, on the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln had made similar use of Jefferson as a unifying myth, though he must have been aware that the real Jefferson had been passionately committed to his native Virginia—and to the defense of slavery—as the drift toward civil war began in the last years of his life.

In both cases the distinctions were understandable at the time; and they were made under the most terrible of pressures. But the inscription on the Jefferson Memorial is still there, and still deceives people, when the motives that put it there have long since faded into history. The Oxford History of the British Empire has little to say about Jefferson, and that little is discreet. But it does situate the different positions of slaves and Indians and whites; and those positions are not compatible with the mythic versions of history that have been associated with Jefferson and many others after him.

This Issue

December 16, 1999