by Nancy Spannaus
Dec. 2, 2021—The timing was auspicious. Two months prior to the New York Times’ Nov. 9 release of its book version of The 1619 Project, noted historian Gordon S. Wood issued a devastating refutation of the Project’s thesis that the introduction of chattel slavery was the “origin” of the United States of America. And he did this without even mentioning the project by name.
Wood was one of five prominent historians who first spoke out on this issue two years ago. He co-signed a letter to the editor which raised “strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project.” The letter singled out the Project’s assertion that preserving slavery was a dominant motivation behind the colonists’ declaration of independence, as totally untrue, among numerous other misrepresentations, omissions, or outright falsehoods.
The Times’ response was to tweak its text, and basically stand its ground. That stance is underscored by the title of the reprinting of the original text of the 1619 Project, with extensive supplemental material, in book form: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. It would appear that the Times is doubling down on its assertion that the landing of the British-captured Portuguese slave ship in Virginia in 1619 was the “origin” of the United States.
That’s not true. The reality is that not only was there always a fight among the American colonists over the legitimacy and existence of slavery on these shores, but that the American “Revolution created the first antislavery movement in the history of the world.” In fact, “in 1775 the first antislavery convention known to humanity met in Philadelphia,” at the same time as the Second Continental Congress.
Those words come from Wood in his latest book, Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution, which was issued by Oxford University Press on September 1. In this short distillation of his decades of work on the American revolutionary period, Wood’s chapter on “Slavery and Constitutionalism” stands out. The rest of this post will be devoted to summarizing it.
America’s Antislavery Movement
Wood’s thesis is that the growing revolutionary movement forced many Americans to rethink and largely reject the institution of human bondage. To some degree, the colonists had been inured to the practice, which was practiced globally. Add to that the fact that more than half of the immigrants to the American continent were indentured servants, who had given up their liberty for some number of years to pay for their passage. Slavery to many seemed just another degree of servitude.
The change which occurred in the 1760 to 1780 period was dramatic. Wood cites Massachusetts lawyer James Otis in his pamphlet The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, and Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 statement that the “abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in these colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.” The sentiment in Virginia, which held the most slaves of all the colonies, even reflected anti-slavery views. Wood quotes an article in the Virginia Gazette, the official newspaper of Virginia, which, in its report on the 1772 British legal decision that freed James Somerset, wrote:
If Negroes are to be slaves on Account of Colour, the next step will be to enslave every Mulatto in the Kingdom, then all the Portuguese, then the brown complexioned English, and so on till there be only one Free Man left, which will be the Man of the palest Complexion in the three Kingdoms. (p. 109)
As for the effect of British Lord Dunmore’s promise to free slaves who deserted to the Crown (but not those who belonged to Loyalists), that occurred after the Revolutionary War was already well underway. Wood concludes that it would have only affected a few who had not already joined the revolt.
Once the war had ended, the momentum continued, Wood asserts, creating the “first great anti-slavery movement in world history.” “The abolition of slavery was as important as the other major reforms states undertook; the disestablishment of the Church of England, their plans for public education, their changes in the laws of inheritance, and their codification of the common law, and their transformation of criminal punishment.”
Wood reviews the state legislation against slavery (five began to ban it by 1787), the exponential growth of the free black population, and the success of “freedom suits” by the enslaved in states as diverse as Massachusetts and Virginia.
The evidence shows that, on the eve of the Constitutional Convention, there was a general belief that slavery was dying out. Yet from early in that Convention, Wood writes, it was clear that the totally different cultures and economies of the North and South would lead to a conflict between them. He notes that James Madison himself opposed a proposal to base representation in the House solely on the “number of free inhabitants,” thus setting up the debate which resulted in the 3/5 clause.
Wood does not deal with Frederick Douglass’ pro-Constitutional interpretation of the “slavery clauses.” He rather emphasizes the concern of statesmen of the North and South to avoid disunity, citing Madison again, at the Virginia ratifying convention, saying in response to objections to the provision for ending the international slave trade, that “a dismemberment of the Union would be worse.”
Madison wrote in 1790 that the Revolutionary ideals of “humanity and freedom” were “secretly undermining the institution.” (p. 122) But the virulent reactions of Southern Congressmen, especially from South Carolina and Georgia, to anti-slavery petitions submitted to them, boded ill. And, Wood says, “probably nothing in the 1790s changed the atmosphere in the country more than the outbreak of a black slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint Domingue.”
No Happy Ending
As we know, there was no happy ending to this phase of the antislavery upsurge. In the North, it was accompanied by racial bigotry, and in the South, by the increased power of an elite, tied to financial interests in the North and London, determined to expand their brutal slavocracy. Slavery became more entrenched. And while the opposition did not die, it had to wait until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and a civil war to win the day.
Could the antislavery movement have been successful peacefully much earlier? That is the question I will be addressing in my next book, currently in the intense writing phase.
In the meantime, we would be wise to heed Wood’s truthful conclusion:
Despite this resultant racial segregation and exclusion and despite the often sluggish and uneven character of the abolition in the North, we should not lose sight of the immensity of what the Revolution accomplished. For the first time in the slaveholding societies of the New World, the institution of slavery was constitutionally challenged and abolished in the northern states. It was one thing for the imperial legislatures of France and British to abolish slavery as they did in 1794 and 1833 in their far-off slave-ridden Caribbean colonies; but it was quite another for slaveholding states themselves to abolish the institution. For all of its faults and failures, the abolition of slavery in the northern states in the post-Revolutionary years pointed the way toward the eventual elimination of the institution throughout not just the United States but the whole of the New World.