J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Challenge of Emancipation in the New Republic

Last month Douglas R. Egerton posted a review for the H-SHEAR list of Eva Sheppard Wolf’s Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion (Louisiana State University Press, 2006). I thought this was an interesting start:

As the American Revolution dawned, Virginia was home not merely to the largest number of African Americans of any new state, but it also boasted a large number of reformers, white and black alike, who desired an end to unfree labor. Wealthy planter Robert Carter created a schedule by which he freed his slaves, and attorney St. George Tucker published a lengthy plan for gradual emancipation, as did Fernando Fairfax, who combined his scheme with the forced removal of freedpersons. Such slaves as Harry Washington abandoned Mount Vernon with John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, only to return as black Loyalist Corporal Washington.

Yet despite black flight and white manumission, by the war’s end in 1783, there were 105,000 more slaves in the state than in 1776, and by the time Nat Turner swung from a tree in 1831, state leaders were well down the intransigent road of positive good theory. Why this promising story did not turn out better has been examined by numerous historians and biographers, but few have waded into the sources as deeply as has Eva Sheppard Wolf.
The “positive good theory” refers to a shift in how American slaveholders discussed slavery. In the late 1700s, most Americans—even those whose wealth depended on keeping people in bondage—agreed publicly that slavery was a bad thing, but argued it was too difficult to do away with immediately. That thinking was particularly strong in the Revolutionary generation, who had spent so much time talking about natural rights and liberty.

Under greater pressure from Abolitionists after the early 1800s, slaveholders developed a new way of thinking, that slavery was a “positive good” for the enslaved people and for society. That of course made emancipation more difficult.

Even just after the Revolution, state populations had difficulty renouncing slavery. Vermont did so as an independent republic, but there were hardly any slaves there to free. Pennsylvania opted for gradual emancipation, as did other northern states over time. In Massachusetts the change came through a 1783 judicial decision affirming that all people deserved equal rights; there was never a popular referendum or vote by the towns’ representatives on the issue.

Here are other reviews of Wolf’s book by David H. Gellman for H-Law, and (in PDF download) by James Sidbury for the William & Mary Quarterly.

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