Slave Nation


This book by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen attempts to support the thesis that concerns over slavery united the colonies against Britain and led to the American Revolution.

The book begins with the 1772 Somerset decision in Britain by Lord Mansfield.  The Blumrosens then claim this decision eventually led to the American Revolution.  They write, “There were at least forty-three stories about Somerset in at least twenty newspapers, all of which made clear in different ways that black slaves in England had been freed by that decision.  The vast majority of these reports appeared in northern newspapers–Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New York, and New Hampshire.  There were accounts published in two of the slave states, Virginia and South Carolina, where fewer newspapers existed.  Two of the papers were in Rhode Island where many slave owners from South Carolina and Georgia had summer homes.” [p. 15]  The Blumrosens say, “These publications warned southern slave holders that if the Somerset principle became the law in the colonies, their society would be at risk.  These risks included greater supervision of colonial action, perhaps taxation of slavery that had now been declared ‘so odious’ that it could not exist in England, and possibly direct parliamentary control of colonial slavery.  Decisions about slavery could be made by Parliament, or the courts, or perhaps even the king, without consultation with the colonists themselves.  If Britain hesitated to free slaves in the colonies because of the incomes the slaves produced, the government might still impose taxes on the sale or purchase of slaves and control the export of products they produced, providing needed revenues for the mother country’s treasury.  This was a serious worry.  The Somerset decision reached the colonies in the second year of a thaw in the strained relations with Britain stemming from the taxation issues of the 1760s.” [pp. 16-17]  The Blumrosens don’t provide any quotations from publications showing any warnings, nor do they provide any writings or statements by any slave owners stating that they regarded the stories about the decision as warnings.  They have exactly zero statements from slave owners that they had any of the concerns listed by the Blumrosens.  They claim, “Once Lord Mansfield had pronounced slavery ‘so odious’ that ‘it is not allowed or approved by the Law of England,’ the prospect that the repugnancy clause might be used in the future to challenge colonial slavery became a serious risk.” [p. 21]  The repugnancy clause was a clause in the colonial charters that prohibited a colony from enacting a law that was “contrary to the statutes of England.”  As the Somerset decision was not a statute of England, it seems a stretch to conclude that it posed a threat to colonial slavery due to the repugnancy clause.  The Blumrosens here also misquote Mansfield’s decision.  He wrote, “[T]he only question before us is, whether the cause on the return is sufficient? If it is, the negro must be remanded; if it is not, he must be discharged. Accordingly, the return states, that the slave departed and refused to serve; whereupon he was kept, to be sold aboard. So high an act of dominion must be recognized by the law of the country where it is used. The power of the master over his slave has been extremely different, in different countries. The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves it’s force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: It’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”  In other words, since England had no positive law stating that slavery was allowed in England itself, then “this case,” i.e., the case of the slave owner claiming the right to forcibly hold Somerset against his will, is not allowed or approved in England.  The Blumrosens again have exactly zero writings or statements by any slave owners who claim that the Somerset case in any way threatened slavery in the American colonies.  They tell us, however, “the fact is that much of the political leadership in the colonies consisted of lawyers, and in the southern colonies these lawyers were often also planters, slave owners, and land speculators,” [p. 21] and then they tell us, “These lawyer-planter-slave-owner-speculator-political-leaders would view events through the lawyer’s lens–‘How will this event affect my clients?’ ” [p. 22]  They provide no support for the claim that this is how the political leadership anywhere viewed the Somerset decision.  They quote a letter from Henry Laurens, a South Carolinian who was in London when the decision was announced: “I will not say a word of Lord Mansfield’s judgment in the case of Stuart v. Somerset [sic] until we meet, save only that his lordship’s administration was suitable to the times.  The able Dunning set out on the defendant’s [slave owner’s] part by declaring that he was no advocate for slavery, and in my humble opinion he was not an advocate for his clients nor was there a word said to the purpose on either side.” [p. 23]  They then speculate, “Why was Laurens so cautious in expressing his view about the Somerset decision?  Mail was insecure and Laurens was already a major political force in South Carolina.  Perhaps he believed that the best course was to blame the lawyer.  Laurens’s letter implies that the decision was the result of poor advocacy by Dunning, the slave owner’s lawyer.  Laurens’s negative attitude toward the decision was consistent with his reliance on slave labor as the basis for his two fortunes as slave trader and planter.[fn25]  He was also consistent in the protection of slavery whenever he had an opportunity.  In 1777, as president of the Continental Congress, Laurens presided over an amendment to the Articles of Confederation that prevented the Somerset decision from being applied anywhere in the new states.”[fn26] [p. 23]  In Footnote 25, they write, “Laurens may have obsessed over the Somerset decision.  On September 21, 1773, the South Carolina Country Journal published an advertisement for four slaves who had run away from the plantation of Henry Laurens in September and December 1772, ‘the following NEW NEGROES, vis. SOMERSET, his country name Massery, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, slim, long visage, and very black, of the Mandingo country,’ Rogers, Papers of Henry Laurens, Vol. 7, 109″  So apparently Laurens obsessed over the ruling because he either named or had a slave who was named Somerset?  This is mighty thin evidence.  In Footnote 26, they write, “Laurens’ opposition to slavery was stated in 1776.  ‘I abhor slavery,’ he wrote in a letter to his son John of August 14, 1776 and indicated his intention to begin manumission of his hundreds of slaves.  Philip M. Hamer Ed. Papers of Henry Laurens, (Columbia, SC: University of SC Press, 1979) Vol. 1 99-100.”  So apparently someone who “abhorred” slavery and was going to manumit his slaves was so obsessive about the Somerset decision that he ensured the Articles of Confederation prevented the Somerset decision, a ruling in England from which the United States had declared herself independent, from being applied in the United States.  Again, their evidence is extremely thin.  The Blumrosens then write, “Laurens did not further commit his views on the Somerset decision to writing.  However, he wrote three letters relating to arrangements to send a slave named Cato to Charleston from England in 1772.  The editors of Laurens’ papers suggest that Cato had been brought to England by Laurens’s former partner and was being sent back post haste to ‘avoid the difficulties that arose in the case of James Somerset.’ ” [p. 24]  So again, there is no direct evidence that Laurens was concerned about the Somerset decision being applied to the American colonies, only supposition on the part of the Blumrosens.

The Blumrosens tell us, “The importance of slavery to the southern colonists had its roots in the pre-Revolutionary period.  As a result of a rebellion by poor whites in 1676, Virginia shifted its labor force from a mix of black slaves and white indentured servants to slaves alone. … Planters were constantly in debt to their merchants as long as tobacco was the primary crop, and slaves could not be sold, they could be mortgaged or pledged.  Tobacco depleted the soil, requiring the clearing of new land; cultivation of the crop demanded the use of slaves.  The result was an economic spiral in which most slave owners were compelled to continue to invest in more slaves, consuming capital which, in the North, had begun to flow into industrial and commercial activities.  Although northern states possessed fewer slaves, the slave trade supported their shipbuilding and commercial activities.  All these considerations combined to make southern political lawyers anxious about their property in slaves that was threatened by the Somerset decision. [fn 37]  Taxation may have taken some of their property; Somerset threatened to take it all.” [pp. 26-27]  Footnote 37 merely says, “See text at notes 25, 50, 51.”  None of that supports their claim that slaveowners felt threatened by the decision.  I’ve already quoted the text at Footnote 25.  The text at footnotes 50 and 51 reads, “Parliament’s reaction to the Somerset proceedings was not reassuring to the colonists.  It had refused to consider legislation protecting slavery in England during Somerset’s trial, following Lord Mansfield’s advice, and did not take it up after the trial was over.  Presumably the people of England did not wish to legalize slavery there.  This treatment of colonial slave owners was in sharp contrast to that in France, where, despite occasional releases of slaves based on the ‘freedom principle,’ French colonists had requested, and the government had agreed to, legislation which set conditions that allowed the colonists to bring their slaves to France and retain ownership of them. [fn 50]  In the context of increasing colonial distrust of British actions and motives, and the growing belief that the British would not understand their need to be secure in their property, this turn-down by Parliament when compared to the French response on the same issue led many slave owners to make their slaves sign indentures, classifying then as servants, before taking them to England. [fn 51]” [pp. 30-31]  Footnote 50 cites “Peabody, There Are No Slaves in France” and Footnote 51 reads, “Hildreth, History of the United States, Vol. II, 567, defined the problems the colonial lawyers had with the repugnancy laws after the Somerset decision declared slavery ‘odious’ and not recognized as common law in his 1846 book.  Hildreth had marshaled the evidence necessary to conclude that the South had joined the Revolution to protect slavery, but he did not reach that conclusion.  Such a conclusion at the time would have supported southern claims that slavery was protected by the Constitution, a conclusion that Hildreth would not have wished to support.  Hildreth’s antislavery position is explained in his Despotism in America:  An Inquiry into the Nature and Results, and Legal Basis of the Slave-Holding system in the United States (Boston: A. Kelley Publishers, 1970) 177-218.  He argued that Somerset plus the repugnancy clauses invalidated slavery in the colonies before the Revolution.”  Again, they have nothing from slave owners at the time of the Revolution to support their views.  If, as they claim, Hildreth had the evidence, it should have been easy to quote the evidence.  So again we have nothing from the slave owners to support their position that the slave owners felt threatened.  All we have is their supposition that the slave owners should have felt threatened and their unsupported allegations.

Next they bring in the Declaratory Act of 1766.  They tell us, “The Declaratory Act of 1766 in which Parliament claimed total power over ‘all cases whatsoever’ in the colonies was far more intrusive into colonial authority than the principle that the government could void laws repugnant to British law.  This was the state of legal affairs that Jefferson considered a sword of Damocles suspended over the colonies.  Thus the reliance on the ‘rights of Englishmen’ that had emerged during the Stamp Act controversy could not prevail under the Declaratory Act.  Furthermore, the southern colonists knew that the senior spokesman for British colonial administration during the Stamp Act crisis had been none other than Lord Mansfield, who had just declared the basis of their society to be ‘odious.’ ” [p. 30]  Do they give us any evidence from southern colonists saying that they were concerned that Lord Mansfield had declared slavery to be “odious?”  No.  Do they give us any evidence from southern colonists that they were in any way concerned about the future of slavery under the Declaratory Act?  No.  This is just more of their supposition and unsupported claims.

They claim, “Thus both the Court of King’s Bench and Parliament rejected the merchant’s demands for a decision protecting colonial slavery.  To many thoughtful southern colonials, this was the last straw in a decade-long effort by Britain to usurp colonial autonomy.  The following year, Adams would argue vigorously and successfully to base the colonists’ claims on ‘natural law’ rather than on existing rights of Englishmen under British laws or colonial charters.  Jefferson and Adams both knew that the abstract declaration of the right of Parliament to control the colonies was a weapon that could destroy colonial aspirations to self-government and could shred the economy of each colony.  They were not alone among those colonists who worried that Britain would treat the colonies as pawns in the international struggle for power with the French and as sources of revenue for Britain, rather than recognizing that the energies of the colonists could enhance the status of the British empire throughout the world.  But now, after Somerset, the threat from the government in London was clearer, and if carried out would undermine the rich and powerful southern society dominated by the lawyer-planter-slave-owner political elite.” [pp. 31-32]  Once again, there is no evidence presented that anyone made any demands for a decision protecting colonial slavery, merely the Blumrosens’ assertion of such.  There is no evidence presented that any colonists were worried about slavery at all, just the Blumrosens’ assertion of such.

The Blumrosens claim, “The Somerset decision, with its slap at the Virginians’ way of life, became the subject of serious discussion in drawing rooms during the fall of 1772.” [p. 33]  Do they give an example of this?  No.  Do they provide evidence of a Virginian writing or speaking about a drawing room discussion regarding the decision?  No.  They simply assert that it was the case.

They then claim, “Some historians have questioned the significance of the Somerset decision because in later years Mansfield disavowed the intent to abolish slavery and British courts held that if a slave brought to Britain did return to the colonies, his slavery reemerged and attached to him again.  However, the decision was in large measure self-executing as slaves walked away from their masters and the masters gave up.  Slavery virtually disappeared in England in the early nineteenth century.  The importance of Somerset in the American colonies was the impression that the decision created in the minds of the colonist planter-lawyer-politicians in late 1772, who could only read the words, not the future.” [p. 35]  As usual, they provide no source for this.  They give us no quotes from any writings of a colonist saying that had any type of impression as a result of the Somerset ruling.   We only have their unsupported assertion.  They tell us, “The attitudes of these men have been examined in depth by historian T. H. Breen.  His thesis is that their perceptions of life were influenced by the nature of the planting process: that being known as a successful grower of tobacco was the pinnacle of personal achievement, giving meaning to their lives and assuring what they considered to be their independence.” [p. 35]  Again, no quotes of their attitudes regarding the Somerset ruling or the danger to slavery as a result of that ruling.  They continue, “A far-off and highly placed judge in Britain had labeled slavery, on which the tobacco culture depended, ‘so odious’ that British law would not recognize it.  These planters must have taken his criticism as applying to the process of their lives.”  Must they?  This is nothing but speculation.  The Blumrosens provide no support at all.  Nothing where any colonist ever said the Somerset decision or anything in it applied to their situation.  They tell us, “A deeper issue underlay the uncertainties created by Mansfield’s decision.  Mansfield’s statement pointedly emphasized Parliament’s ultimate power over slavery in the colonies under the Declaratory Act of 1766 when he told Stewart that Parliament is the ‘best and perhaps only method of settling the point for the future.’  This statement meant that Parliament’s claim of total power over the colonies ‘in all cases whatsoever’ included the institution of slavery.  Thus the refusal of Parliament to consider whether to legalize slavery in Britain during Somerset’s trial, implying a lack of sympathy toward the slave owners, may have been as upsetting to the southern colonies as the Somerset decision itself.”  What uncertainties?  Mansfield clearly said in his decision that there was no positive law in England that established slavery.  Parliament made the laws in England.  Therefore, for slavery to exist in England, Parliament had to make a law to establish it.  The colonies already had laws establishing slavery.  Those laws did not go against English law.  The Blumrosens have made a proverbial leap across the Grand Canyon with no support whatsoever.  They haven’t even established the decision was upsetting to the southern colonies.  They’ve only asserted it.  To add to that previous assertion they’ve now speculated, and only speculated that Parliament’s not passing a law to establish slavery in England would be upsetting to southern colonists.

The Blumrosens next claim, “In the gall of 1772, the planter-lawyers carried these fears from the drawing rooms to their offices and courthouses where they met.  As lawyers pondered the Somerset decision published in southern papers, their concern increased.  They put together three points of Mansfield’s reasoning in the Somerset case: (1) slavery was repugnant to the common law, (2) Parliament had the final say concerning the legality of slavery under the Declaratory Act of 1766, and (3) Parliament had claimed the power to tax the colonies in the same Declaratory Act.  They realized that slavery was under a double-barreled threat from Britain, under the repugnancy clause and the Declaratory Act.  After Somerset, slavery and the colonial life it supported existed at the will of an apparently unfriendly Parliament.” [pp. 36-37]  Do they provide any support for this claim?  Of course not.  Recall they never supported their claim that “the planter-lawyers” had any fears in the drawing rooms at all.  They merely asserted it.  They provide no evidence of discussions in offices and courthouses.  They provide no evidence of “pondering” the decision.  They provide no evidence of the three points.  They provide no evidence whatsoever that any colonist “realized that slavery was under a double-barreled threat from Britain.”  They provide no evidence the colonists regarded Parliament as unfriendly to slavery in the colonies.

The rest of the book is more of the same.  They make assertions without any quotations from colonists to back up what they’re saying.  Then they speculate about something and then later treat their speculation as if it were an established fact.  They do have a novel interpretation of the causes of the American Revolution.  Unfortunately, there’s nothing to back up their claims.  They want very much for their viewpoint to be correct.  They utterly fail to give a critical reader reason to believe them.

The book is not a total loss, though.  They have a good discussion about discussions regarding slavery in the Constitutional Convention, and they give us a good discussion about the Northwest Ordinance.  They’re right about slavery’s importance in the southern colonies, later states.  Unfortunately, whenever they try to link the Somerset decision to what was happening in America they stumble.  When they try to make protection of slavery a cause of the American Revolution, they stumble badly.  I really cannot recommend this book at all.

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