Short History of the American Negro - Benjamin Brawley

The Revolutionary Epoch

12. Character of the Age.—The period of the American Revolution in its widest limits may be made to include that of the War of 1812 as well as that of the Revolution itself. The progress of the cause of the Negro in this period is to be explained by two great forces which were being felt at the time in Europe as well as in America. One of these was the humanitarian impulse which found such abundant expression in the poems of William Cowper. The other influence was the general diffusion of liberal ideas which in England began the agitation for a free press and for parliamentary reform, which in France accounted largely for the French Revolution, and which in America led to the revolt from Great Britain. No patriot could come under the influence of either one of these forces without having his heart and his sense of justice moved to some degree in behalf of the slave.

13. Lord Mansfield's Decision. In November, 1769, Charles Stewart, once a merchant in Norfolk and later receiver general of the customs of North America, took to England his African slave, James Somerset, who, becoming sick, was turned adrift by his master. Later Somerset recovered and Stewart seized him, intending to have him borne out of the country and sold in Jamaica. Somerset objected to this and by so doing raised the important legal question, Did a slave by being brought to England become free? The case received a great deal of attention, for everybody realized that the decision would be far-reaching in its consequences. After it was argued at three different sittings, Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of England, in 1772 handed down from the Court of King's Bench the decision that as soon as ever any slave set his foot upon the soil of England, he became free.

14. English Sentiment.—This judgment may be taken as fairly representative of the general progress that the cause of the Negro was making in England at the time. Early in the eighteenth century sentiment against the slave-trade began to develop among the Christian people of the country. Many pamphlets telling of the evils of slavery were circulated, and as early as 1776 motion for the abolition of the slave trade was made in the House of Commons. John Wesley preached against the system, Adam Smith in is Wealth of Nations showed its ultimate expensiveness, and Edmund Burke declared that the slavery endured by the Negroes in the English settlements was worse than that ever suffered by any other people. The list of those who worked against the evil is a long one. Special mention, however, must be made of two of the greatest friends of the slave—Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. Clarkson was strong in investigation and in organizing the movement against slavery, and Wilberforce was the parliamentary champion of the cause. For about twenty years, assisted by such debaters as Burke, Fox, and the younger Pitt, Wilberforce worked until on March 25th, 1807, the bill for the abolition of the slave-trade received the royal assent. Even then his work was not finished, as slavery itself was yet to be abolished in the English dominions. How this was done we shall see in a later chapter.

15. American Sentiment.—The high thought of England necessarily found reflection in America, where the logic of the position of the patriots forced them to defend the cause of liberty at all times. As early as 1774, largely through the influence of the Quakers, the first anti-slavery society was organized in Philadelphia, with Benjamin Franklin as its president. John Adams thought that "every measure of prudence ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States."

Thomas Jefferson denounced the system as endangering the very principle of liberty on which the state was founded, "a perpetual exercise of the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other." Patrick Henry declared of e system of slavery, "I will not—I cannot justify it! I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we can do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for it unhappy lot, and an abhorrence for slavery." Washington desired nothing more than "to see some plan adopted by which slavery might be abolished by law," and ultimately liberated his own slaves. These noble sentiments made some progress, but generally the people did not respond to the high thought of the patriots. They were as yet moved by feelings rest of interest rather than of humanity, and in 1785, in a letter to La Fayette, Washington said that petitions for the abolition of slavery presented to the Virginia legislature could scarcely obtain a hearing.

16. The Negro in the War.—In November, 1775, Lord Dunmore, the unpopular governor of Virginia, proclaimed freedom to all slaves who would fight against the American revolutionists. He and other English leaders thought to weaken the colonies by thus depriving them of a labor supply for the throwing up of fortifications and the raising of provisions. As a result of this action, thousands of Negroes joined the British ranks. The colonies, filled with alarm, changed their attitude toward the slaves and began to permit Negroes to enlist, their masters receiving payment from the public treasury. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina thus accepted the services of slaves, and severe penalties were threatened upon those who took up arms against the American cause. It was designed to organize in the South, especially in South Carolina, an army consisting of two, three, or four battalions of Negroes. Colonel Laurens of the Continental Army had charge of the project. Able-bodied slaves were to be paid for by Congress at the rate of $1,000 each, and a slave who served well to the end of the war was to receive his freedom and $50 in addition. South Carolina and Georgia, distrustful of the plan, did not encourage or co-operate with Laurens; so he did not succeed in his work. Williams estimates that altogether about three thousand Negroes served in the American army. Generally, however, the war had little effect on the lot of the Negroes. At the close of the conflict New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia freed their slave soldiers; but for the most part the system remained as before, the English being bound by the treaty of peace not to carry away any Negroes. The race furnished several individual heroes in the war, however; and some of these will receive mention in our chapter on "The Negro as a Soldier."

17. Early Steps toward Abolition.—Various tendencies in the history of the colonies with reference to the slave-trade may be observed. From 1638 to 1664, there was a tendency to take a moral stand against the traffic, as in the laws of New England, the plan for the settlement of Georgia, and the early protest from the Germans in Pennsylvania. The period 1664–1760 was marked by the steady growth of a spirit opposed to the long continuance of the traffic, and observable in various prohibitive duties. From 1760 to 1787 there were pronounced efforts to regulate or totally prohibit the trade. The Continental Congress made a general declaration against the importation of slaves, and the first draft of the Declaration of Independence arraigned Great Britain as the real promoter of slavery in America. The Articles of Confederation in 1781 gave the states the power to regulate this as every other form of commerce. In 1784 the Congress, assembled in Philadelphia, made a declaration of colonial rights. Fourteen articles were $431) ?> agreed on as forming the basis of an "American Association." In one the slave-trade was denounced and entire abstinence from it and from any trade with those concerned in it was enjoined on the members of the Association.

For more definite enactments we must turn to the work of the several states. Virginia by protest in 1772, Connecticut by statute in 1774, and Delaware by her Constitution in 1776 attempted to stop the slave-trade; and Virginia in 1778 was the first political community to prohibit it with efficient penalties. Delaware's article against the slave-trade was the first such in a state Constitution; but, as we shall see later, it is to Vermont, that was still a territory at this time, that the honor of taking the first step for the real abolition of slavery belongs. In 1782 the old Virginia statute forbidding emancipation except for meritorious services was repealed. The repeal was in force for ten years, in which time private emancipation were numerous. Maryland soon passed acts similar to those in Virginia prohibiting the further introduction of slaves and removing restraints on emancipation. New York and New Jersey followed the example of Virginia and Maryland in prohibiting the further introduction of slaves either from Africa or from some other states, but general emancipation was not declared in these states for many years. In 1780, in spite of considerable opposition because of the course of the Revolutionary War, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed an act forbidding the further introduction of slaves, and giving freedom to all persons thereafter born in the state. Similar provisions were enacted in Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784. In Massachusetts as early as 1701 the town of Boston had instructed its representatives in the general assembly to propose "putting an end to Negroes being slaves." This province was much agitated about slavery from 1766 to 1773, and frequent attempts were made to restrict further importations of Negro slaves.

In this period a Negro took his case before the Supreme Court to decide the question, Under the laws of Massachusetts could a Negro be a slave? His argument was that the royal charter declared that all persons residing in the province were to be as free as the king's subjects in Great Britain, that by Magna Charta no subject could be deprived of liberty except by the judgment of his peers, and that any laws that may have been passed in the province attempting to mitigate or regulate the evil of slavery did not authorize it. This Negro was financially supported by others, and he was awarded a favorable decision. The judgment, however, failed to have any general effect, and at the beginning of the Revolution the Congress of Massachusetts seemed to recognize the system of slavery by the decision that no slave could be enlisted in the army. In 1777, however, some slaves brought from Jamaica were ordered to be set at liberty, and it was finally decided in 1783 that the declaration in the Massachusetts Bill of Rights to the effect that "all men are born free and equal "prohibited slavery. In this year New Hampshire incorporated in her constitution an article definitely prohibiting slavery. Far different was the course of events in the Southern States. North Carolina in 1777 enacted that instead of the consent of the governor and council that of the county court was necessary for the freedom of a slave; and neither South Carolina nor Georgia took any steps to encourage emancipation. It will be seen, however, from this rapid review that some progress had been made. By the time the convention for the framing of the Constitution of the United States met in Philadelphia in 1787, at least two of the original thirteen states (Massachusetts and New Hampshire) had positively prohibited slavery, and in three others (Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) gradual abolition was in progress.

18. The Northwest Territory.—The Northwest Territory was the region west of Pennsylvania, east the Mississippi River, north of the Ohio River, and south of Canada, finally organized in 1787 as a territory of the United States. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War this region was claimed by Virginia, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. This territory afforded to these states a source of revenue not possessed by the others for the payment of debts incurred in the war. Maryland and other seaboard states insisted that in order to equalize matters these claimants should cede their rights to the general government. The formal cessions were made and accepted in the years 1782-86. In April, 1784, after Virginia had made her cession, the most important, Congress adopted a temporary form of government drawn up by Thomas Jefferson for the territory south as well as north of the Ohio River. Jefferson's most significant provision, however, was rejected. This declared that "after the year 1800 there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states other than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." In 1787 the last Continental Congress, however, passed "An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, Northwest of the Ohio," the Southern states not having ceded the area south of the river. It was declared that "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the parties shall be duly convicted." To this was added the stipulation (soon afterwards embodied in the federal Constitution) for the delivery of fugitives from labor or service. In this shape the ordinance was adopted, even South Carolina and Georgia concurring. Thus was paved the way for the first fugitive slave law.

19. The Constitution and Slavery.—Slavery was the cause of two of the three great compromises that characterized the making of the Constitution of the United States (the third, which was the first made, being the concession to the smaller states of equal representation in the Senate). These are the first of a long list of compromises in the history of the subject. South Carolina, with able representatives, largely dominated the thought of the convention, threatening not to accept the Constitution if there was not some compliance with her demands. An important question was that of representation, the Southern states advocating representation according to numbers, slave and free, while the Northern states were in favor of the representation of free persons only. It was finally agreed to reckon three-fifths of the slaves in estimating taxes and to make taxation the basis of representation. With reference to the slave-trade a bargain was made between the commercial interests of the North and the slaveholding interests of the South, the granting to Congress of unrestricted power to enact navigation laws being conceded in exchange for twenty years' continuance of the African slave-trade. The main agreements on the subject of slavery were thus finally expressed in the Constitution: "Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to servitude for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons "(Art. I, Sec. 2); "The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the congress prior to the year 1808, but a tax or duty may be imposed, not exceeding ten dollars on each person "(Art. I, Sec. 9); "No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due " (Art. IV, Sec. 2). It will be observed that the word slaves occurs in no one of these articles. The framers of the Constitution did not wish to have their document recognize property in human beings.

20. Inventions.—Of incalculable significance in the history of the Negro in America was the series of inventions of the years 1767-93. In 1768 Richard Arkwright, after a year of experimenting, set up in Preston in England his first spinning-frame, which consisted mainly of two pairs of revolving rollers. About 1764 James Hargreaves of England invented the spinning-jenny. In 1779 the principles of these two inventions were utilized by Samuel Crompton in his spinning-mule, which had as its distinctive feature a spindle-carriage which, receding so as to ease the strain of winding on the spindles, produced yarn suitable for the manufacture of fine muslins. In this same period the revolutionary discovery of the power of steam by James Watt of Glasgow was applied to cotton manufacture, and improvements were made in printing and bleaching. There yet remained one final invention of importance for the cultivation and manufacture of cotton on a large scale. Eli Whitney, a graduate of Yale, went to Georgia and was employed by the widow of General Greene on her plantation. Seeing the need of some machine for the more rapid separating of cotton-seed from the fiber, he labored until in 1793 he succeeded in making his cotton gin of practical value. The tradition is persistent, however, that the real credit for the invention belongs to a Negro on the plantation. The cotton-gin created great excitement throughout the South and began to be utilized everywhere. The cultivation and exporting of the staple grew by leaps and bounds. Thus at the very time that the Northern states were abolishing slavery, an industry that had slumbered became supreme, and the fate of hundreds of thousands of Negro slaves was sealed.

21. Influence of Toussaint L'Ouverture.—About this time there came into the notice of the world a remarkable man whose influence on the history of slavery in the United States has yet to be fully estimated. The most important colonial possession of France was Santo Domingo, which then included also the present Hayti. Hither slaves had been brought in such numbers that in 1791 there were on the island sixteen Negroes to one white man. The French slave code was not harsh; but its provisions were generally disregarded by the planters on the island. The result of this and of a vacillating attitude on the part of the Assembly in Paris was that in 1794 Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of Negro insurgents, became supreme on the island as commander-in-chief: British soldiers invited by the planters were forced to leave in 1798. Toussaint as president brought the island to a high degree of prosperity; but in 1802 he was treacherously seized by the emissaries of Napoleon Bonaparte, taken to France, and confined in a dungeon. This was the man who caused France to lose her most important colonial possession, and the Negro race to obtain its first independent settlement outside of the continent of Africa.

In America the influence of this chieftain strengthened the anti-slavery movement, became one of the reasons for the cheap selling of Louisiana, and rendered more certain the prohibition of the slave-trade by the United States in 1807. A wave of fear swept over the South, and the voice of morality began to speak more loudly than that of trade to the New England conscience. The effect on legislation was immediate, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia passing more repressive measures, directed especially against importations of West Indian Negroes.

22. From 1789 to 1817. New States and Territories.—In Washington's administration considerable discussion grew out of different memorials presented to Congress for the suppression of the slave-trade. These generally emanated from the Quakers in Pennsylvania, who were untiring in their efforts for the slave. A fugitive slave law was passed in 1793. It practically placed the burden of proof on the fugitive; accordingly many free Negroes were remanded into slavery. As many of the Northern states passed acts forbidding their magistrates to take any part in putting this law into execution, it became substantially a dead letter; nevertheless its moral force was to strengthen the South. A measure of 1794 in Congress was the first national act against the slave-trade. It was designed to prevent the carrying on of the traffic from the United States to any foreign place or country, or the fitting out of slavers in the United States for any such place or country.

Vermont was admitted to the Union in 1791. Her constitution, originally adopted in 1777, declared very positively against slavery; so that to this state really belongs the honor of being the first to prohibit and abolish slavery. Kentucky was formally admitted in 1792, the article on slavery in her constitution encouraging the system and discouraging emancipation. Tennessee entered as a slave state in 1796. In 1797 the question of slavery in the Mississippi Territory was raised, and the only restraint placed here was that Negroes should not be brought in from outside of the United States. In 1798 the Constitution of Georgia was revised. On the matter of slavery it followed the Kentucky article making emancipation difficult.

In 1799, after many efforts and much debating, New York at last declared for gradual abolition. As frequent mention has been made of this matter of gradual abolition, and as New York's solution of the problem was fairly typical, it might be well to review the chief provisions in her act. Those who were slaves were to continue such for life. Their children born after the following July 4th were to be free, but were to remain as apprentices with the owner of the mother, the men until they were twenty-eight years old, the women until they were twenty-five. The exportation of slaves was forbidden, and the slave on whom such an attempt was made was to be set free at once. Persons coming into the state might bring with them slaves whom they had owned for a year previously; but slaves so brought in could not be sold. New Jersey declared for gradual abolition in 1804. It was not until about 1830, however, that slavery finally ceased in New York, and still later than this in New Jersey.

Attempts were made about 1800 for gradual abolition in Kentucky and Maryland; but these failed, as did also an attempt for more speedy emancipation in Pennsylvania. In 1802 Georgia ceded to the United States the territory now comprising Alabama and Mississippi, exacting for this, however, an article favorable to slavery. When in 1803 Ohio was carved out of the Northwest Territory as a free state, an attempt was made to claim the rest of the territory for slavery; but this did not succeed. In the congressional session of 1804-05 the matter of slavery in the newly acquired territory of Louisiana was brought up, and slaves were allowed to be imported from other states if they had come to the United States not later than 1798, the intention of this last clause being to guard against a recent act of South Carolina reviving the slave-trade. In this latter state importation, prohibited in 1787, was again legalized in 1803; and in the four years immediately following 39,075 Negroes were brought to Charleston.

As the constitutional twenty-year period of the prohibition of measures against the slave-trade was expiring, there were animated debates in Congress on the subject. At length it was enacted that the importation of slaves should be prohibited after December 31, 1807. As we shall see, although this act went into effect, the slave-trade was by no means suppressed. Smuggling was continued, sometimes on a large scale. Louisiana was admitted as a slave state in 1812, and Indiana came into the Union in 1816.

The subject of slavery was generally quiescent in the period of the War of 1812. This war was opposed by the South; just why may be seen from the fact that Admiral Cochrane of the British navy issued an address designed especially to attract slaves to his standard. The war, moreover, was damaging to the exportation of cotton. Mississippi was admitted to the Union December 10, 1817, slavery being recognized in a clause not granting to slaves the privilege of trial by jury. Illinois entered in 1818, and Alabama in 1819. It will be observed that up to this time the balance had been fairly well preserved between the slave and the free states. Of the former there were in the original thirteen seven, and of the latter six. Vermont was an addition to the free states; but the admission of Kentucky and Tennessee strengthened the South. Then from 1803 to 1819 Ohio and Louisiana, Indiana and Mississippi, and Illinois and Alabama marked an alternation of free and slave states. The Southern states soon realized that they could not long maintain this balance because of the lack of territory and also by reason of the fact that the business of the North tended more than that of the South to the rapid growth of population. In the meantime came the application of Missouri for entrance; but with this event the history of slavery started on a new era, one destined not to be closed until the Negro was free.

23. The Decline of Great Convictions.—We have seen that at the beginning of this period liberal ideas were dominant in both England and America. One of the sad features of the close of the era is the fading of the ideals that had inspired the patriots of the Revolution. Generally the energies of the young nation were being directed to the material development of the country, and more commercial interests entered into the second war with Great Britain than into the first. In the North there was a lull in the agitation, the meetings of anti-slavery organizations becoming intermittent. In the South the men of patriotism and responsibility found themselves in the grasp of a mighty evil which it was almost as difficult to shake off as to endure. Generally the demands of interest were taking precedence over those of humanity; and Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina made more stringent laws against emancipation. Increasing sensitiveness on the subject of slavery was felt, and Thomas Jefferson, apostle of democracy, dared not risk his popularity by utterances similar to those of his earlier life. Considerable advance had been made, however. Four states (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Ohio) had definitely prohibited slavery, and generally throughout the North abolition was in progress.