Dr. James Brewer Stewart, Founder of Historians Against Slavery, a group of scholars that brings historical context and scholarship to the modern-day antislavery movement and a James Wallace Professor of History Emeritus, Macalester College, posed the question in the forward of Hidden in a Book — $40 Trillion—Keep the Mule written by Larry Kenneth Alexander… “How would our view of reparations, restitution, restorative justice (or whatever other term one might prefer) be affected if history confirmed that slavery in England’s colonies had been declared illegal… well before the American Revolution? What if, before the founding of our Nation, everyone held in bondage had actually been confirmed by Great Britain’s highest court to possess the full rights of English citizenship? In our view, that’s exactly what happened.”
Colonial Slavery Was Illegal
At the signing of the Declaration of Independence—black colonists had the same legal rights and status as white colonists under the English rule of law. The American Colonies Act, commonly referred to as the Declaratory Act of 1766 had voided colonial slave statutes and racialized laws “for all purposes whatsoever,” ten years earlier.
The human ownership claims of white slaveholding colonials ceased having presumptive legitimacy as colonial slave statutes and racialized laws were abolished in 1766. For Parliament found these laws to be inconsistent or repugnant to English common law and set to reaffirm colonial America’s subordination to the Crown and Parliament by voiding and nullifying all resolutions, votes, orders, or proceedings passed in the absence of the Crown’s and Parliament’s authority.
In 1772, the Twelve Judges in the Somerset case upheld the parliamentary act done in 1766—by ruling slavery was not “allowed and approved by the laws of this Kingdom” and since slavery had never been established in common law and could only be promulgated by a “positive law,” then slaveholding white colonists within the American colonies were acting outside the rule of law.
A third of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were slaveowners or profiteers of hereditary slavery and they included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and some New England delegates who all understood the legal effect the Somerset ruling had on their financial status, so in deceit they subverted the intent of the delegation to proclaim liberty and equality for all by protecting slaveholding rights even though it was illegal.
Point in fact—colonial slavery was illegal as of March 1766—well before the American Revolution—and the Somerset decision on June 22, 1772 made colonial slavery unlawful and was the “final nail in the coffin” of colonial slavery. The Somerset decision was an expression of the power and authority of the British imperial government, and it was on full display—less than thirty-six months before the first “shot heard round the world” was fired in Concord, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775.
But even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary—within the historical profession, there is an unwillingness to recognize the contestable status of colonial slave statutes and a willingness to contend that slavery within colonial America faced no immediate threat from the British imperial government as a run-up to the American Revolution. This misapprehension of a verifiable fact has become embedded within U.S. history books and biographies and is now America’s public policy.
The myth that colonial slavery was facing no real threat from the British imperial government before the American Revolution is a confounding position—as it is ahistorical and quickly plummets when a conscientious student of history realizes that the British had an initiative—the Southern Strategy—operationalized before the Declaration of Independence. This British initiative sought to cripple colonial America’s slave-based economy by targeting the slave population to weaken and splinter the Continental Congress.
Slavery Caused Colonial America to Separate from Great Britain
History supports that on November 7, 1775—Virginia’s governor Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation that adjudged America’s patriots as traitors to the Crown and declared “all indented servants, Negroes, or others… free that are able and willing to bear arms.” And Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of emancipation was well-publicized, and enslaved people throughout the thirteen colonies separated themselves from their enslavers to join the British military, supporting the conclusion that slavery was a factor that caused colonial America to separate themselves from Great Britain.
Colonial newspapers published Lord Dunmore’s proclamation in full and The Virginia Gazette warned slaves to “Be not then… tempted by the proclamation to ruin your selves.” In addition, the newspaper urged enslaved blacks to “cling to their kind masters.” Pro-slavery newspapers published articles claiming that Dunmore’s emancipation was a ploy—but it did not work, as enslaved blacks from all of the colonies were leaving their enslavers in pursuit of freedom. And by late November 1775—countless former enslaved colonials enlisted for military service with the British.
Lord Dunmore’s proclamation under the English rule of law made foreigners, such as African-born slaves—English citizens. In so doing, all semblance of the lawfulness of slavery within the American colonies was drained away from the practice of slavery in 1775. Moreover, Lord Dunmore formed a regiment of run-away enslaved people—Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, and by December 1775 had more than 300 troops. This caused patriots to view Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of liberation of enslaved black colonials as a major concern and to realize that the holding together of the coalition of colonies, as well as its patriots together, was “a do or die” proposition.
Patriot General George Washington’s response to Lord Dunmore’s proclamation before the Declaration of Independence was that… “I do not think that forcing his lordship on shipboard is sufficient. Nothing less than depriving him of life or liberty will secure peace to Virginia, as motives of resentment actuate his conduct to a degree equal to the total destruction of that colony.”
Moreover, the British Southern Strategy caused Washington and other delegates to the Continental Congress to believe, as he stated to Colonel Henry Lee III in December 1775, that success in the rebellion would come to whatever side could arm “Negroes” the fastest, also supporting the conclusion that slavery was a factor that caused colonial America to separate themselves from Great Britain.
Further, a South Carolina delegate to the Second Congress wrote that Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation did more to sever ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of” and Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence” are the words of historian Jill Lepore in her book, These Truths: A History of the United States.
Patriot James Madison felt that the British Southern Strategy was the kind of “tampering with the slaves,” he had most feared. “To say the truth,” he confided in a friend, “that is the only part in which this colony is vulnerable—we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret.” The British imperial government surely knew colonial America’s secret and King George III’s government proclaimed liberty for black colonials before the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.
Then in furtherance of their Southern Strategy—British General George Clinton liberated all enslaved people in colonial America on June 30, 1779, by the British Phillipsburg Proclamation. The primary rationale behind the Phillipsburg Proclamation was to stimulate mass desertion by encouraging enslaved black colonials to come over to the British. If successful, the British imperial government thought that it would strike a mighty blow at the plantation economy and force southern enslavers to use men to guard enslaved people instead of fighting British soldiers. The offer of liberty applied to males and females—including children and it was estimated that 100,000 enslaved people deserted to the British.
Finally, this pre-Declaration of Independence threat to colonial slavery created a tense diplomatic situation after the Treaty of Paris of 1783 ending the American Revolution was signed between the British and the United States when British General Guy Carleton claimed black colonials as English citizens. Each nation had agreed to “set at liberty” each other citizens. Then General George Washington made an ownership claim of black colonials based upon “colonial statutes,” abolished by Parliament’s Declaratory Act of 1766 and the Somerset decision—ten years before the Declaration of Independence. Carleton did not agree, and the dispute required America to legally prove their citizens’ human ownership under international law. They never did and 500,000 presumptive English citizens were denied liberty and enslaved by the United States.