American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765–1795


May 1, 2023
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation 1765-1795 by Edward J. Larson (New York, NY: WW Norton & Company, Inc., 2023)

The 1619 Projectundeniably makes the case that American history can only be properly understood if slavery is a central pillar (perhaps THE central pillar). The peculiar institution was always in the background and foreground during seminal events surrounding the nation’s founding. Edward J. Larson, whose books are familiar to most Revolutionary War historians (Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership, The Return of George Washington: Uniting the States, 1783-1789, and A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign), offers a new look at the issue of slavery during the thirty years of the Revolutionary era. American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795, examines what Larson calls a “political minefield” (page vii): the idea of liberty and the reality of slavery. The synthesis of these two opposites shaped many of the events concerning the Revolution and the Early Republic.

Larson begins his book with Crevecouer’s question of “What is an American?” Crevecouer wrote glowingly about what he observed about American culture and the ideas of liberty and equality. At the same time, he did not ignore the hypocrisy of slavery.  Larson gives a brief history of slavery in the British world since the 1450s, along with the viewpoints regarding slavery from famous Americans, such as Franklin and Jefferson. The first three chapters cover the years from 1765 through 1774. British colonists in North America considered themselves to be slaves to Parliamentary policies. They understood the meaning of the term, seeing themselves being treated as badly as the chattel slaves languishing in actual bondage throughout the colonies. Still, the colonists did not see anything wrong with their cries for liberty and their active participation in slavery. Crispus Attucks, a formerly enslaved person, is widely accepted as the first victim of the Boston Massacre, bringing the African American community into colonial protests. In the famous Somerset judicial decision, slavery in the British empire was called an “odious” practice, so bad that it no longer could exist in the British Isles. Fears that Parliament and the monarchy could possibly take away their slaves turned more colonists against the crown. Patrick Henry called for liberty from this fear.

The Patriot cause was further strengthened by Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of offering freedom to enslaved people who would fight for the British army against the rebels, and three times as many Blacks fought for the British as for the Americans. Gen. George Washington, a wealthy slave-owner, had trouble accepting Blacks in the Continental Army, but once he did, his views started to change. He was aware of the brilliant young enslaved woman named Phyllis Wheatley, whose story Larson brings up because of her unique position. Liberty was a concept that Blacks clearly understood, but it had a very different meaning. They had a clearer understanding of the word “liberty,” and they were willing to fight for it. John Laurens wished to use this against the British and developed a quixotic plan to arm former slaves. It seemed that the British had a better grasp of the concept of liberty. After Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, he made sure that his Black soldiers would stay emancipated.

By Chapter 7, “A House Dividing: Liberty and Slavery Under the Confederation, 1781-1787,” the new United States is clearly being torn into two sections: one pro-slavery, one anti-slavery. The Articles of Confederation lacked jurisdiction over slavery, and so states like Massachusetts refused to assist slavecatchers trying to return fugitive slaves. Slavery became a central issue at the Constitutional Convention as described in Chapter 8, giving the Constitution the 3/5 Compromise, the twenty-year continuation of the slave trade, and the Fugitive Slave Law. Larson tallies the votes for ratification by state, showcasing Patrick Henry’s objection to the federal constitution on the basis that it would free enslaved people (p. 223). By the time the Constitution was officially ratified, there were two Americas:

Liberty united the states; slavery was dividing them into North and South; yet the two emerging national factions, federalism and anti-federalism, both bridged sectional divisions by incorporating antislavery partisans from the North and proslavery partisans from the South. Even when those factions hardened into political parties – John Adams’s Federalists versus Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans – both retained their northern antislavery and southern proslavery camps, which would help to hold the nation together for a season. [p. 229]

Chapter 10, “’I Am Free’ Liberty and Slavery under the Federal Government, 1789-1795,” covers the Washington administration, Rhode Island’s ratification battle, and New York’s gradual emancipation law. Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s personal slave, took advantage of the free Black community she encountered outside of Mount Vernon and escaped, refusing to return to the Washington household. Her flight to freedom demonstrated the different interpretation that Blacks had of liberty, a fact that slaveholders still would not embrace. The book’s epilogue brings the reader back to Crevecouer’s question about what is an American. Benjamin Banneker, who directly questioned Jefferson’s idea of White supremacy, answered that question by saying that he was an American. Sadly, Jefferson refused to get into an intellectual debate with Banneker, dismissing him almost completely.

Larson ends his book with a brief synopsis of events that led to the end of slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, a tragic termination that cost almost half a million American lives. The story does not end there, however, because slavery continues to undermine the idea of liberty, from the civil rights movement of the 1960s to today’s Black Lives Matter. American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795is an excellent and compelling work, written with Larson’s easy-going prose.

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  • An excellent overview of American Inheritance.

    Larson’s book provides a cogent description of the contradictory tensions between African-American slavery and white freedom. His assertion that black slavery and white freedom are akin to DNA spirals is a clever way to sidestep much of the 1619 debate. However, Larson (and the 1619 Project) inappropriately omits a critical contributor to America’s founding. There is no mention of Native Americans, their impact on the country’s evolution, and their mistreatment by European settlers. It is essential to recognize that Native Nations are a third strand of Larson’s DNA metaphor.

  • Having not read Larson’s book, I can only claim the review lays out his intent clearly. I hope to pick up a copy soon. A few things:

    Ona Judge escaped while in Philadelphia, not in Virginia. It was the free African community in Philadelphia who helped her travel to New Hampshire.

    The Somerset decision did not have any measurable impact on slavery in the eighteenth century. What it did was effectively make the case that it was incompatible with British common law on the main land. However, since there were few enslaved people in England at the time, it did not have the effect some have suggested. Its significance was at best minimal in North America and the British Caribbean. “Fears” of Parliament disrupting slavery, when they benefited from it, were overblown. Orators like Patrick Henry used whatever inflammatory language he could regardless of the realities. Somerset was far more influential in the nineteenth century when abolitionists like Frederick Douglass began citing Somerset.

    While what is written here is technically correct, let us not misunderstand the reality: the British army did not encourage and accept runaway slaves for them to take up arms against the American rebels as a testament to their abolitionist sympathies. They would arm Black Americans *if it presented a tactical advantage.* Aside from the few noted instances, the overwhelming majority of escaped African American men were made laborers to dig trenches and fortifications for the British, while others served as cooks and valets. And one cannot dismiss the possibility that the true British intentions of evacuating runaways to Nova Scotia had more to do with giving one last ‘middle finger’ to the Southern economy than it did with sympathizing with African American freedom.

    And while the 1619 Project centers the enslaved people first brought to Virginia, in doing so, it erases the histories and stories of enslaved people who had been in North America for nearly a century before. Spanish Florida and a short-lived Spanish outpost in South Carolina in the sixteenth century had both enslaved and free Africans. St. Augustine, Florida’s local historians have presented evidence that a free African community existed beginning in the 1570s from formerly enslaved laborers. I’ve read one account that the first documented marriage certificate there in 1565 was an interracial couple.

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