In response to:
The Paradox of the American Revolution from the January 13, 2022 issue
To the Editors:
In his review of Woody Holton’s Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution [NYR, January 13], Sean Wilentz presents an array of statistics about the slave trade that require correction. Professor Wilentz questions Holton’s claim that nearly a million Africans were transported to the Americas between 1783 and 1792. A closer look suggests that Holton is a little cavalier on the numbers—the slavevoyages.org estimates for this period are 873,000. But Holton is mistaken in assuming that the War of Independence had any effect on the overall slave trade. The massive Portuguese, British, French, and Spanish slave trades were growing before the War of Independence, and they resumed their growth to peak levels after 1783. The peak year for the transatlantic slave trade was 1829.
One problem with Wilentz’s estimates is that he excludes arrivals to the US from the Caribbean. He states that “between 1786 and 1795…an estimated 10,006 enslaved Africans disembarked in what had been British mainland North America.” That figure is correct for the number who arrived here directly from Africa. However, it fails to include those who arrived in the same period via the intra-American slave trade. When we add in the 6,916 Africans arriving indirectly, the total for that decade dramatically increases by a whopping 70 percent.
Suppose we widen our lens somewhat and look at the number of arrivals between 1780 and 1808, the year the legal slave trade ended. In that case, the total number of enslaved Africans who arrived in the United States is estimated to have been 116,277—101,048 directly from Africa and 15,229 from other ports in the Americas, which amounts to 25.4 percent of the total of 457,348 enslaved Africans who arrived in mainland North America over the entire course of the legal slave trade.
The growth in the trade is apparent if we look at the numbers of imports in the early nineteenth century. Professor Wilentz says that the Constitution permitted “South Carolina to reopen its slave trade in December 1803, which led to the arrival of an estimated 63,862 enslaved Africans…to the Carolinas and Georgia” before 1808. (The slavevoyages.org estimate for this period and region is slightly higher, 66,795: 64,512 directly from Africa and another 2,238 through the intra-American trade.) 1807 saw the historical peak of the slave trade to North America when Charleston received more enslaved people (28,892) than the British Caribbean combined (26,855). As this suggests, despite state and federal legislation, American merchants dramatically reconstituted their transatlantic slave trade in the 1790s, with an epicenter, first, in Rhode Island and then Charleston.
Even with these important adjustments, Professor Wilentz’s numbers also fail to account for American participation on US-flagged vessels from Africa to foreign ports, an issue that has received insufficient attention. Adding those numbers, we can see that American involvement in the slave trade progressively increased to an astonishing degree. For example, we can add another 70,646 Africans caught up in this traffic to the 116,277 who arrived in the United States between 1780 and 1808. Overall, Americans were responsible for nearly 5 percent of the total transatlantic slave trade between 1783 and 1808, not the 2.4 percent that Wilentz claims. In the last decade of the legal traffic, the US was the third-largest slave trader in the Atlantic world after the Portuguese and the British.
The central issue of the review is whether the Constitution “facilitated a postwar boom in the forced transportation of Africans to the Americas.” Holton says it did; Wilentz says it ultimately enabled abolition. The Constitution upheld the institution of slavery by protecting the rights of slaveholders. But it also opened a venue for Congress to end the transatlantic slave trade. In Holton’s support, we have shown that, indeed, there was an exponential growth in enslaved Africans carried to the postrevolutionary US. But that increase also confirms Wilentz’s point on the importance of the decision to abolish the trade at a time when ever more Africans were arriving. Without such legislation, prices for the enslaved would have remained low and American merchants would have continued importing captives to the US, and indeed to the rest of the Americas.
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, British Columbia
Department of History
University of Texas at San Antonio
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Alphonse Fletcher University Professor
Sean Wilentz replies:
My thanks to Professors Eltis, Felipe-Gonzalez, and Gates for clarifying the statistics on the intra-American slave trade. A total of 16,922 enslaved Africans arrived in the US between 1786 and 1795, not 10,006. The letter writers’ figures and sources also affirm my conclusions about the Constitution and the slave trade. This is the crucial point, underscoring the scholarly refutation of the doctrinaire nonsense about the supposedly pro-slavery Revolution.
The letter writers reinforce my review in concluding that Woody Holton on the slave trade is “a little cavalier on the numbers.” Holton’s effort to tie the Constitution to the entire transatlantic slave trade for the decade after 1783 is “highly deceptive,” as I wrote, starting with the fact that the Constitution only came into effect in 1788.
Unfortunately, some of the letter writers’ other observations are mistaken. For instance, they have me holding Americans responsible for just 2.4 percent of the entire transatlantic slave trade from 1783 to 1808. My review, though, states something entirely different, that US-flagged vessels accounted for “about 2.4 percent” of the trade in slaves from Africa, but only “to the rest of the Americas,” and only between 1783 and 1792.
This muddle probably explains, in turn, their assertion that I fail to include the enslaved people carried by “US-flagged vessels from Africa to foreign ports.” But the sentence they garble does exactly what they charge I don’t do.
That error regrettably misrepresents my view of the US Atlantic slave trade. Between 1780 and 1808, their figures show, the number of enslaved people sent directly from Africa to the US and those sent to foreign ports under the US flag—which my review includes—was 171,694. Add the intra-American trade that I overlooked and the total is 186,923, a difference of 8.9 percent—noteworthy, even significant, but hardly vast. The suggestion that my review, in seeking accurate statistics, gravely minimizes both the barbaric US slave trade and the immensely larger overall trade is false.
It’s true that the US was the third-largest slave trader in the Atlantic world from 1798 through 1807, but the statement can mislead. By then, the letter writers should have mentioned, three countries alone commanded more than 90 percent of the trade, and the US trailed the leaders, Portugal and Great Britain, by a factor of roughly three.
Finally, the letter writers should reconsider seriously their claims about an “exponential growth” in enslaved arrivals to the US after the Revolution, with a dramatic reconstitution of the trade in the 1790s. Their sources actually reveal the opposite, contravening Holton. The Continental Congress’s ban on importing enslaved Africans during the Revolution can make marginal increases after the Revolution look “exponential.”
More important, the sources indicate a drastic decline in arrivals during the postrevolutionary decades compared to prerevolutionary America. The total for the twenty years ending in 1776, as calculated by slavevoyages.org, was 113,142. Over the twenty years starting in 1783, the figure was 41,549—an astonishing drop by nearly two thirds. The undramatic growth after the Revolution was erratic, not “exponential,” briefly peaking in 1784–1785 and 1795–1797. The sharp spike to which my review alludes—two thirds of the total since 1783—only came between 1803 and 1807, nearly a generation after the Constitution was ratified, anticipating abolition in 1808.
There was a steadier rise in the numbers carried by US-flagged ships between 1783 and 1808, chiefly to foreign ports, with another spike in 1803–1807. But numbers alone can deceive. As too few note, the Constitution permitted Congress to restrict the US slave trade short of abolition before 1808. This included banning US involvement in the foreign slave trade, which Congress, pushed by black and white abolitionists, enacted in 1794 and 1800. Enforcement proved difficult, but still: How much can anyone say the Constitution “facilitated” the larger slave trade when it empowered Congress to outlaw the US part of that trade, which Congress did?
Quibbling about statistics aside, the larger point is that, contrary to Holton, the Constitution’s authorization to abolish the American transatlantic slave trade in 1808, although a hard-fought compromise, was fundamentally an antislavery accomplishment in 1787–1788, the first serious blow ever against the Atlantic trade in the name of a national government. We are left, without illusions, as the letter writers conclude, to reflect on the importance of the Constitution in opening “a venue for Congress to end the transatlantic slave trade.”