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.

Follow by Email


Sunday, August 25, 2019

“By the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black”

In 1764 James Otis, Jr., published his treatise The Rights of British Colonies Asserted and Proved through the Edes and Gill print shop.

This was even before the Stamp Act, when tariffs on molasses and sugar were Massachusetts’s main bone of contention with Parliament and only a certain class of colonial merchants cared. Otis, attorney and political representative for those merchants, was already putting forth a natural rights argument for colonial autonomy.

Otis also recognized that his argument had implications for the American practice of race-based chattel slavery. On page 29 of his first edition he argued:
The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black. No better reasons can be given for enslaving those of any color than such as Baron Montesquieu has humorously given as the foundation of that cruel slavery exercised over the poor Ethiopians [The Spirit of Laws, Book XV], which threatens one day to reduce both Europe and America to the ignorance and barbarity of the darkest ages.

Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool instead of Christian hair, as ’tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face?

Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own.

To this cause must be imputed that ferocity, cruelty, and brutal barbarity that has long marked the general character of the sugar islanders. They can in general form no idea of government but that which in person or by an overseer, the joint and several proper representative of a Creole and of the D—l, is exercised over ten thousand of their fellow men, born with the same right to freedom and the sweet enjoyments of liberty and life as their unrelenting taskmasters, the overseers and planters.

Is it to be wondered at if when people of the stamp of a Creolian planter get into power they will not stick for a little present gain at making their own posterity, white as well as black, worse slaves if possible than those already mentioned?
In later paragraphs Otis reiterated his points about rights for all:
That the colonists, black and white, born here are freeborn British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such is a truth not only manifest from the provincial charters, from the principles of the common law, and acts of Parliament, but from the British constitution, which was re-established at the Revolution with a professed design to secure the liberties of all the subjects to all generations. . . .

Now can there be any liberty where property is taken away without consent? Can it with any color of truth, justice, or equity be affirmed that the northern colonies are represented in Parliament? Has this whole continent of near three thousand miles in length, and in which and his other American dominions His Majesty has or very soon will have some millions of as good, loyal, and useful subjects, white and black, as any in the three kingdoms, the election of one member of the House of Commons?
However, Otis never followed up his statements about the natural rights of both blacks and whites, especially those “born here,” to argue for the end of slavery in North America.

Indeed, Otis tried to focus all the attention on the “sugar islanders” of the Caribbean, not the slaveholders in his own town and province. And he compromised after some pushback on even that accusation, because at the end of the pamphlet, he made an addendum:
I now recollect that I have been credibly informed that the British sugar colonists are humane towards their slaves in comparison with the others. Therefore in page 29, let it be read, foreign sugar islanders and foreign Creoles.
Otis thus absolved his fellow British subjects (and his merchant clients’ most important customers) from his worst criticism.

Nonetheless, all the way back in 1764 James Otis recognized that the natural-rights argument for American freedom was inexorably tangled up in the realities of American racial discrimination.


Don Carleton said...

One minor point regarding another fine post: by the late colonial period it actually was the "foreign creoles," not the British West Indians, who were the primary source of New England's imported molasses. So by displacing his critique of West Indian barbarity from British planters to foreign ones, Otis was attacking his merchant clients' truly-important commercial correspondents.

Of course, it was highly unlikely that the French planters of Saint Domingue would be reading his tract and complaining to the powers-that-be in London, so it was still a probably effective, if highly-cynical, rhetorical maneuver!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Don. I was thinking of the people the New England merchants wanted to sell to rather than their molasses suppliers. But either way, Britons and Americans have always been happy to point to foreigners for allegedly doing worse by their slaves.

Don Carleton said...

I don't believe that Boston merchants were selling all that much directly to GB (although shipping represented one high-value NE product that DID have a market there): my understanding is that Massachusetts merchants' commercial relationships with the metropolis were primarily as customers for manufacturers, consumer goods, and East India goods.

These were purchased with bills of exchange or specie acquired via trade elsewhere around the Atlantic rim, e.g. the West Indies, the Wine Islands, and Southern Europe, or bought on credit that ultimately to repaid with bills or cash.

Of course, you certainly don't want to rankle your creditors if you can help it!

J. L. Bell said...

By "the people the New England merchants wanted to sell to" I'm referring to the British "sugar islanders" whom Otis originally criticized—the Caribbean planters buying salted fish. Those men might now be distilling their own rum instead of selling molasses back, but they were still customers.

Otis claimed that "ferocity, cruelty, and brutal barbarity…long marked the general character of the sugar islanders." That exempted both North Americans and London merchants, even though they participated in the same system. Then, apparently under some pressure, he walked back to "foreign sugar islanders and foreign Creoles."