And yet, historians, such as the critics of the 1619 Project, published by the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize award-winning long-form commentary written by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions… in particular, Sean Wilentz from Princeton University, who circulated a protest-styled letter amongst historians, and Leslie M. Harris from Northwestern University who all claimed that the preservation of slavery had nothing to do with America’s push for independence in 1776. Their claims are ahistorical and at best constitutes a misapprehension of the legal effect of Parliament’s Declaratory Act of 1766 and the Somerset decision in 1772.
In particular—Wilentz’s letter took exception to the 1619 Project’s claim in the opening essay that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Wilentz’s letter claimed certain events referred to in the project were “matters of verifiable fact” that could not be described as interpretation or “framing,” and he concluded that the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”
Although Wilentz did concede in the letter that if the founders did indeed declare the colonies’ independence of Britain in order to ensure slavery would continue—if proven supportable, “the allegation would be astounding,” he yet stated that “every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.”
Wilentz did acquire four signatories, James McPherson, a George Henry Davis 1886 emeritus professor of American history, Princeton University; Gordon Wood, an Alva O. Wade University emeritus professor and emeritus professor of history, Brown University; Victoria Bynum, a distinguished emerita professor of history, Texas State University, and James Oakes, a distinguished professor, the Graduate Center, the City University of New York, all leading scholars in their field. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that these five historians have committed themselves to be “astounded” if supportable evidence exist to infer, if not prove that the American colonies declared independence to continue slavery.
Prepare to be Astounded
The Declaratory Act of 1766, the Somerset decision and the British Southern Strategy were unadulterated expressions of British imperial power and control directed at the American colonies. They must be considered in tandem and then analyzed through the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the exercise of parliamentary sovereignty to best understand why slaveholding colonists were concerned about the future of slavery, and how the narrative developed of claiming colonial slavery’s preservation was of no concern to the slaveholding colonists in colonial America in the run-up to the American Revolution.
Historian Charles M. Andrews in his book The Colonial Background of the American Revolution observed that patriots were inconsistent on basic constitutional and political issues. Even liberal Northerners like John and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts and others who supported the rule of English law, and who’d just three years earlier supported the historic slave emancipation bills of Massachusetts General Court consistent with the Somerset decision—and even protested their governors’ vetoes were appallingly compliant. They were willing to latch upon emerging arguments to support the American Revolution, and the flexibility of the patriots was traced in the book Political Ideas of the American Revolution by Randolph C. Adams.
Further, the first principle of this interdisciplinary assignment requires a study of the Declaration of Independence, the English rule of law, and community from the beginning of the 17th century to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. In furtherance of providing supportable evidence that the preservation of slavery was a priority for the founders—there are only two tasks.
Firstly, identify the beginning of American colonial slavery, the ways people used the colonial legislative system to create the extralegal institution of slavery, and show how corruption and the systemic degradation of colonial governance and the flexibility of colonial Americans contributed to slavery’s creation and its preservation even after freely admitting in the Declaration and indicting the British for the “abolishing,” of “our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments,” slavery persisted and was later codified in the U.S. Constitution.
Secondly, explain the legal consequence of the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and Parliament’s Declaratory Act of 1766 that abolished colonial statutes and laws—ten years before the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and in the context of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield using England’s Twelve Judges procedure to definitively address and resolve the Kingdom-wide legal questions of colonial slave statutes entitlement to be granted full faith and credit; a solemn determination upon parliamentary sovereignty within the Kingdom of Great Britain and related legal issues regarding the practice of slavery in the historic Somerset v. Stewart case on the 22nd of June 1772.
The Declaration of Independence is made up of five distinct parts, the introduction; the preamble; the body, which can be divided into two sections; and a conclusion. The first section of the body of the Declaration gives evidence of the “long train of abuses and usurpations” heaped upon the colonists by the British imperial government and King George III. The founders agreed and listed 27 grievances against the British imperial government and King George III.
Still, there were other complaints, grievances and concerns supporting their right to rebellion which were removed from the original draft, yet probative in explaining the Founding Generation’s reasoning for the uprising. The Declaration was not an exhaustive listing of the reasons for independence.
Disagreements Over Slavery Risked Unanimous Support
In its original form, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence denounced slavery and the slave trade. The first part of the so-called “slavery passage” was aimed directly at the King. “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” Jefferson then called the institution of slavery “prated war,” “execrable trade” and assembly of horrors.”
The second part of this passage alluded to Lord Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation, which offered freedom to any enslaved person in the American colonies who volunteered to serve in the British army to fight against American patriots…“he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
The British imperial government’s Southern Strategy which Lord Dunmore’s proclamation was the first iteration, inspired tens of thousands of enslaved people to seek liberty behind British lines. And this incensed American patriots and was thought to rally colonists behind the cause for independence and did motivate them to rebellion. And yet, U. S. historians claim slavery played no role in the founders’ reasoning and calculus for separating themselves from Great Britain.
History supports, the Continental Congress believed that it was better to remove the section dealing with slavery than risk a protracted debate over the issue—understanding that it threatened unanimous support for independence from the southern colonies. The delegates recognized that the Declaration of Independence was going to result in war with the British and if the colonies were not united, they would not prevail. The clause itself was stricken out at the request of delegates from South Carolina, and Georgia—but supported by New England colonies.
However, with respect to discerning if the preservation of slavery factored in the Founding Generation’s calculus for declaring independence, the rationale for removing the section dealing with slavery, and the body section of the Declaration of Independence is insuperable evidence.
Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence was edited because too many delegates, and the colonies they represented, had a vested interest in perpetuating the institution of chattel slavery. At the time, slavery existed in all thirteen colonies, and at least one-third of the delegates, who would go on to become the signers of the Declaration of Independence—owned enslaved people.
In addition, the delegates knew that the document would inevitably lead to war and would have to unify the colonies. Slavery was known to be a divisive issue and thousands of colonists, from all walks of life would have to voluntarily risk their lives in a rebellion against the British.
Further, within the four corners of the approved Declaration, the founders did complain about slavery being abolished through the Declaratory Act of 1766 and how it altered “fundamentally the Forms of our Governments,” and even in grievance 1 in the Declaration that “He [King George III] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”
Grievances 21 and 23 in the Declaration indicts the British imperial government and King George III… “For taking our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments,” and “For suspending our own Legislatures and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in All cases whatsoever.” The Declaration inculcates evidence that the founders separated from Great Britain because colonial slavery had been abolished by way of the Declaratory Act of 1766 and the Somerset decision in 1772.
Thus, there is compelling evidence that slavery had vital relevance to the Founding Generation’s creation of this nation as the slavery clause was removed from Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence to further unanimity among the delegates and colonies and the agreed grievances confirmed that colonial slave statutes and laws were voided by the Declaratory Act of 1766 and as the Somerset decision ruled slavery was not legally recognized in the Kingdom when the American Revolution began and yet slavery remained a constant presence in the emergence of the United States.