Monday, July 9, 2018

Countering the accepted myth of America’s beginning

On July 4th, many Americans celebrated the idea that the Revolution, in freeing the American colonies from Britain, set forth a new nation dedicated to freedom, democracy and the proposition that “all men are created equal.” While the beginning words of the Declaration of Independence stating the concept of human equality are well worth celebrating, the reality of the American Revolution has a very different, sinister side.

 I presented the sinister side in a letter published today by the Washington Post in its July 9th edition (posted online late July 8th). The message was necessarily constricted by the space limits allowed for published letters. Here is the letter as posted online:

Ignoring an important part of the American Revolution

The July 4 editorial “What ‘America First’ should really mean” portrayed the United States as “a nation that long ago set itself against tyranny.” But this ignored the elephant in the room: The American Revolution was motivated in part to preserve slavery.

In 1772, four years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the English court decision Somerset v. Stewart was generally interpreted to mean that slavery had no legal basis in England. In contrast, the laws of the southern American colonies defined slaves not as people but as property. The contrast between these laws and the public’s view of the Somerset decision could not be starker. The southern colonies feared that Somerset would eventually apply to them and abolish their way of life. In their view, the only way to preserve slavery was to become independent of Britain. Their support for independence was essential to the Revolution’s success.

The moral impact of Somerset eventually led Britain to abolish slavery in nearly all of its colonies. It did that in 1833, 32 years before slavery was abolished in the United States by the 13th Amendment. Had Britain succeeded in suppressing the Revolution, slaves in the United States might have been freed a lot sooner.

John L Hodge, Jamaica Plain, Mass.

The words of the Somerset decision call slavery “so odious” that it could only be established by “positive law,” which in England meant an Act of Parliament. Parliament never authorized slavery. While the precise holding of Somerset has been debated, the public in England and America understood it to mean that slavery had no legal basis in England. After Somerset, many slaves in England simply walked away from their masters. Many slaves in the American colonies who learned of this decision ran away to look for a way to get to England.

The words of the Somerset decision starkly contrasted with the slave laws of the American colonies that defined slaves not as people but as property. This excerpt from the 1740 slave law of South Carolina states the concept of slavery accepted by the southern colonies. The law provided

 that all Negroes and Indians . . .  mulattoes or mustizoes who now are, or shall hereafter be, in this Province, and all their issue and offspring, born or to be born, shall be, and they are hereby declared to be, and remain forever hereafter, absolute slaves, and shall follow the condition of the mother, and shall be deemed, held, taken, reputed and adjudged in law, to be chattels personal, in the hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators, and assigns, to all intents, constructions and purposes whatsoever. . . .

Thus, for example, any person with any visible African ancestry was, by law, a slave and not a person. In these southern colonies, there was legally no such thing as a free black (though some blacks still managed to live as free). There was no such thing as a black as a legal person. A lawsuit like Somerset could not have occurred in these colonies, because a slave had no right to bring a case to court. The southern practice of slavery, and sometimes the northern practice, remained in accordance with such laws until the end of the Civil War.

The sinister side of the American Revolution is not simply that the southern colonies needed to preserve slavery to protect their economies and way of life. It is also that the northern colonies needed to unite with the southern colonies to wage the Revolution. The northern colonies knew quite well what the southern colonies wanted and joined with them nonetheless.

What is the purpose of recognizing the dark side of the American Revolution? First, it is important in general that people know the truth and not be governed by myths. Second, the mythical view of America prevents Americans from recognizing the extent to which the United States has not, historically or today, been the world’s leader in fulfilling the concept of human equality. Third, the mythical view of the American Revolution feeds a nationalistic mentality that underlies the Trumpian idea of “America First.”

The nationalistic mentality thrives under Trump, but it was not his original idea or just a Republican one. Former President Obama, for example, said in a speech at a Democratic National Committee dinner (Oct, 6, 2010), “this country is the greatest country on Earth,” and he expressed similar sentiments about America’s greatness in many of his major speeches as president. Other presidents, Republican and Democrat, have done the same.

The progressive task of advancing democracy in the United States requires a hard look at where the country has failed and where it is faltering. This hard look includes acknowledging that the origin of this country depended on the need to preserve slavery in total contradiction to the concept of human equality. In addition, the Declaration of Independence itself referred to “merciless Indian savages.” Many debilitating contradictions remain today. Myths about America’s greatness are blocking our view. We cannot change what we do not see.

Sources for the letter and this post:

Alfred & Ruth Blumrosen, Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution (2005)

A.  Leon Higginbotham, Jr., In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period (1978)

Slave laws


South Carolina:



North Carolina:

Selected Additional Resources:

David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1969)

J. Jean Hecht, Continental and Colonial Servants in Eighteenth Century England (1954)

Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black; American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1969)

Betty Wood, The Origins of American Slavery (1997)

My books and letters seek to penetrate the walls of myth to see how things really are. Learn more about them from my website: .