It was an ordinary event when the first black slaves arrived in the Virginia colony in 1619. Subjection and force were the way of the world.
It wasn’t just that nigh all mankind practiced slavery—that the African enslaved and sold his brothers to the European, that the Arab, the Comanche, and the Melanesian all slaved, that Hebrew Torah and Greek philosophy and Roman law all accepted slavery as part of the world. Every master coerced every servant, whether he was a slave or not.
In 1619, serfdom’s onerous burdens thickened east of the Elbe, in Poland and Russia’s vast steppes. In Java and in Persia, along the Yangtze and the Po, landowners in every corner of the globe used money, law, and brute force to make their peasants labor for their lords. In Paris and Istanbul and Delhi and Beijing the potentates received the obeisances of their nobility. Even in England, where such prostrations rankled, Goodman Farmer doffed his cap to Milord Broadacres. And just as masters ruled servants, so fathers ruled children and husbands ruled wives.
Priests and scholars taught that this was right. The Great Chain of Being, the Mandate of Heaven, the Sunni deference to ulū al-amr, those who have been given authority—however framed, it was proper for mankind to divide into rulers and ruled, masters and servants. Liberty and equality were strange anomalies, almost monstrous. Freedom was license, the people the mob. Chattel slavery of Africans, in Brazil and Barbados, and now on the Chesapeake Bay—true, it was harsh. But nothing strange.
The Glorious Revolution and the Habits of Freedom
Mankind dreamed of a better world. Every nation had words for liberté, égalité, and fraternité. The thinkers of the West—of Europe, of Christendom—had long meditated on Greek demokratia, on Roman libertas, on the Bible’s declaration that man possessed irreducible dignity because he had been created in God’s image (tzelem Elohim, eikon Theos, imago Dei). A political, legal, and social framework that conduced to liberty matured in medieval and Renaissance Europe: self-governing cities and bumptious parliaments, a thickening precedentiary patchwork of Roman and customary law, merchants and peasants with the practical habits of freedom. European writers did not yet quite esteem masterless men, but, in the Spain of Lazarillo de Tormes and Guzmán de Alfarache, the England of Falstaff and Autolycus, the Germany of Simplicius Simplicissimus, the picaresque rogue became ever more sympathetic.
The habits of freedom were as strong in England by 1619 as they were anywhere in the world. It was a land where Parliament defied its king with ever greater vigor, where Edward Coke argued the superiority of the law against both Parliament and king, where Puritans set themselves against the religious authority of bishops and kings. Yet if freedom was vigorous in England, it had not yet triumphed. James I claimed to rule by divine right, in his grandson’s reign Quakers would be whipped for refusing to doff their hats to gentlemen, and swaggering courtiers in their cups felt as free to pummel London townsmen under the Stuarts as they had under the Plantagenets. Liberty and equality remained the anomaly in England, as everywhere else on the round earth.
And then 1688. The Glorious Revolution. James II, a king nearly finished with his metamorphosis to tyrant, fled England, never to return. His Dutch son-in-law William became king—by Act of Parliament. Parliament, its House of Commons elected by hundreds of thousands of Englishmen, claimed and took England’s sovereignty. In 1689 Parliament enacted the Bill of Rights and the Toleration Act: the new England would rise on foundation stones of freedom. Successive Parliaments over the next decades slowly made the royal government practically accountable to Members of Parliament: no taxation without the right to look at the government’s books. The Licensing Act lapsed in 1695, and with it the requirement to clear beforehand with some official what you wanted to publish. Freedom of the press flourished as never before, and with it the freedoms to write, to read, to think. We are freeborn Englishmen. It had been said before, with the warrant of juries and aldermen, militias and the sturdy self-confidence of the English yeomanry. But now the claim was the lifeblood of the nation, in a land ruled by Parliament, which had assumed power with a guarantee of liberty to every subject of the crown.
English liberty and equality still had limits. The Toleration Act did not apply to Catholics. A minority of men could vote—and no women. Aristocrats and gentlemen had the running of the land. What then did it mean to be a freeborn Englishman?
Day by day, year by year, Englishmen worked out what that freedom meant—Bostonians of Lincolnshire and Massachusetts, burghers of old York and New York, the little England of Europe and the raw, sprawling England shooting up in America. English and American legislatures, town governments, and juries made liberty and equality ever more an everyday reality. Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic made freedom ever more the habit of their private lives.
The numbers of middling men grew greater every year—merchants in London and Bristol, farmers along the Delaware River and the Carolina Piedmont. They earned their living in a world where the old limitations of the moral economy dissolved, to be superseded by the freedom of the market. Guild powers withered; the working men who doubled as small businessmen grew ever more numerous. Ambitious Liverpool businessmen financed the construction of docks, turnpikes, and canals. In Philadelphia, Boston-born printer Benjamin Franklin made his fortune, exemplified and argued for the virtues of the self-made man, and busied himself creating libraries, hospitals, firefighting companies, home insurance companies, and universities. Economists argued with increasing boldness that economic freedom was beneficial and proper. Adam Smith, fittingly, published The Wealth of Nations in the revolutionary year of 1776.
What is an Englishman, Anyway?
The common law, bulwark of liberty, spread out from England: it adhered to an Englishman wherever he settled, and any subject of the British crown could sue in common law courts while resident in England. The American colonies successively adopted England’s common law. Virginia instituted common-law individual property tenures as early as 1624. South Carolina adopted the common law by statute in 1712, and North Carolina in 1715. Pennsylvania’s Assembly in 1718 declared that as “the common law is the birthright of English subjects, so it ought to be the rule in British dominions.” Slowly, the writs of English common law came to be regarded as the rights of man.
The ties of faith and freedom deepened every year. Latitudinarian Bishops of the Church of England such as John Tillotson and Benjamin Hoadly preached a mild, tolerant Anglicanism, a state religion unprecedentedly averse to coercing belief. Quakers and Baptists flourished, free of the threat of imprisonment. Enthusiastic belief flourished as Englishmen took advantage of the freedom to pray as they would. The First Great Awakening, led by clergymen including Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley, sparked revival meetings on both sides of the Atlantic. Methodists, indifferent to the censure of staid Anglican clergyman, conquered Wales, as soon they would conquer the industrial marchlands of England.
The people of England agitated uncontrollably for more freedom still. Radical Whigs such as James Burgh and Richard Price, the heirs to the dream of the English Republic, denounced government corruption and championed individual liberty. When in 1769 Parliament expelled the scabrous, demagogic pornographer John Wilkes, the defiant freeholders of Middlesex re-elected him to Parliament time and again; he would finally return in triumph to Parliament in 1774. Thomas Paine emigrated that same year from England to America, and brought with him the pure tradition of English radicalism. In 1647, Colonel Thomas Rainborowe had proclaimed that
The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he … I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.
In 1776, Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet told all Americans that Rainborowe’s words were common sense.
Should just Englishmen have rights? What was an Englishman anyway? The sense of an Englishman grew less insular. As early as 1701 Daniel Defoe satirized the narrow conception of “The True-Born Englishman”:
The silent nations undistinguish’d fall,
And Englishman’s the common name for all.
Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;
What e’er they were they’re true-born English now.
In Britain itself, the motley United Kingdom came to esteem the Scottish philosopher David Hume, the Irish politician Edmund Burke, and the Welsh inventor Philip Vaughan. In the American colonies, the true-born Englishmen came to include increasing streams of Scots-Irish, Germans, Huguenots, and Dutchmen. The generation of revolutionary Americans would include Peter Muhlenberg, John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, and Alexander Hamilton—and Americans would gratefully honor the cosmopolitan support of men such as Casimir Pulaski, Filippo Mazzei, Bernardo de Galvez, Baron von Steuben, and the Marquis de Lafayette.
The Tale of Liberty Triumphant Made Slavery Abhorent
When the increasingly rebellious Americans agitated for their rights in the 1760s and 1770s, some spoke the language of republicanism, some the language of the French Enlightenment, some the liberalism of John Locke. But virtually all spoke of their rights as freeborn Englishmen. 1776 universalized 1688, redescribed English liberties as universal rights. America’s Bill of Rights, with the lapse of a century, universalized the English Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly; the right to bear arms; due process and jury trials—all these were now the rights of every man.
That’s the tale of liberty triumphant—and it isn’t all the tale. Parliament’s Black Act of 1723 inflicted barbarous punishments on poachers. Protestant Londoners infamously harried Catholics in the Gordon Riots of 1780. In John Bull’s other island, the Irish majority endured without their land, their faith outlawed. The triumph of English freedom was always a partial story.
And then there was slavery. The regime of whips and shackles flourished in England’s Caribbean empire, and in its American colonies. Englishmen profited mightily from the slave trade and the products of slave labor. A sharp irony: the vast majority of African slaves arrived in English America after 1688, after the Glorious Revolution had set the dynamic of liberty in motion.
But. As England became freer, as Englishmen came to regard liberty and equality as the natural condition of humanity, slavery seemed ever less ordinary. It became an anomaly—and one that was ever harder to justify.
In 1688 itself, Aphra Behn had published Oroonoko, her novel of a noble African prince who was by nature no slave. In 1711 Richard Steele updated and popularized the fable of Inkle and Yariko—a story of an English merchant saved by an Indian lover, who, when he is safe back in English lands, sells his lover and their unborn child into slavery. Steele’s readers knew the Englishman’s behavior was indefensible, unforgivable. English readers devoured a growing swell of captivity narratives—no longer of Englishmen captured by Barbary pirates or savage Indians, but of Ukawsaw Gronniosaws and Olaudah Equianos, Africans captured by Europeans. Englishmen’s moral sense had begun to recoil from slavery.
Recoiling from Legal Support for Slavery
The English law likewise recoiled. In 1772, Lord Mansfield declared that common law forbade chattel slavery in England and Wales: “The state of slavery … is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.” The case of Knight v. Wedderburn extended the abolition of slavery to Scotland. Any slave brought to the homeland of English law would become free. Slavery remained in the Empire, of course. Abolitionists asked, with increasing support among the English public and politicians: Why?
In 1754, New Jersey Quaker John Woolman published the pioneering abolitionist tract Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes. John Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Slavery (1774) further savaged the practice. Devout Englishmen, Quakers above all, became ever less comfortable with slavery. In 1787, Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and ten others founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, to begin the first abolitionist Parliamentary campaign. But earlier, in 1776—the year of the Declaration of Independence, the year of the publication of The Wealth of Nations—the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends prohibited any member from owning slaves.
Slaves increased vastly in number in America in the 1700s—but, with a lag, so too did free blacks. The American Revolution greatly increased their number: northern states ended slavery wholesale, and individual slaveowners throughout America now chose to manumit their slaves. Eight percent of the black population in America was free by 1790. Free blacks congregated in cities. Richard Allen bought his freedom in 1780; Absalom Jones was manumitted in 1784; in 1794, they founded in Philadelphia the first African Methodist Episcopal Church. Blacks also found greater freedom at sea. Jack Tar, the cosmopolitan deck hand of the English and American navies, was increasingly a Black Jack. Olaudah Equiano and Crispus Attucks both emerged from this racially composite maritime world.
The American Revolution as Incomplete, but Eventual Emancipator
Thousands of Americans blacks preferred the British cause to that of the slave-holding rebels during the American Revolution; many found their liberty in exile, in Canada or England. But some 9,000 black soldiers served the Patriot cause, and the Northern states recruited ever more heavily from African Americans as the war progressed. Gratitude for that service, and the increasing thought that liberty should apply to all men, prompted a cascade of state abolitions of slavery: Vermont in 1777, Pennsylvania in 1780, New Hampshire and Massachusetts in 1783, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784. New York and New Jersey would set in motion gradual abolition in 1799 and 1804. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 ensured that all the territories north of the Ohio River would be free forever—the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The American Revolution was also a revolution for black liberty—although a painfully incomplete one. White slaveowners fought for liberty and democracy; the vast majority of blacks remained enslaved.
That contradiction was glaringly obvious. Samuel Johnson asked in 1775, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Next year, Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence included the claim that George III had “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” The line, with its impolitic implications, would go from the final draft—and Jefferson would keep the vast majority of his own slaves till his dying day. But Jefferson knew that slavery violated the sacred rights of life and liberty, and that they applied to the most distant peoples on earth.
Englishmen had become Americans, liberty and equality had shifted from customs to rights, and slavery had become a very peculiar institution indeed, a repellent anomaly in a world of freedom. The rule of coercion and subjection had become the exception, applied with singular harshness to blacks rather than in varying degrees to all men. Why? If all men are free, how can some still be held in bondage? The answer was apparent: they cannot and will not. That outcome could not be long deferred.
It lasted long enough. Slavery would endure for generations in America until Lincoln acted on what Jefferson knew, and extirpated by terrible civil war that last anomaly. Even then, slavery’s Jim Crow shadow would endure for further generations. But the promise of 1688 had already won the crucial battle by 1776. And all American history since 1776 has been the further application to all mankind of that wonderful, history-transforming boast, We are freeborn Englishmen.