Humdrum Selfishness

Nicholas Guyatt

  • Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama
    BBC, 448 pp, £20.00, September 2005, ISBN 0 563 48709 7

Ever since Samuel Johnson’s icy comment of 1775 – ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’ – British observers have felt a little sour about the American Revolution. For Tories like Johnson, the colonists were ungrateful wretches who had squandered the precious gift of British liberty. Worse, they had the temerity to crow about it, arguing that the American Revolution had purified their political inheritance. But British accusations of American hypocrisy foundered on the unsettling realisation that the colonists were justified in their complaints. From Edmund Burke to Richard Price, observers across the political spectrum struggled to see much evidence of British liberty in the crass mismanagement that led to the Revolution. Some even followed Jefferson, who in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence blamed Britain (and its controlling interest in the slave trade) for the introduction and persistence of slavery in America.

Simon Schama thinks that this silence about America’s founding paradox has lasted far too long. Americans have been allowed to generate their own creation myths, which marginalise the contradiction between liberty and slavery in the Revolutionary era. Take the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot, which shows a South Carolina planter with a black ‘employee’ who willingly joins a Patriot militia and takes arms against the British. Have a look at the many high-school or college textbooks in the US in which slavery is depicted as a peripheral aspect of the Revolution, but a central feature of America’s difficult journey towards freedom and equality in the antebellum period. These stories sustain a cherished myth about American history: that the Revolution was the first stage in a process which resulted in freedom being granted to everyone in the United States, and that this process (though gradual and contested) was both hermetic and successful. Americans eventually acknowledged the propriety of universal freedom, and redeemed the promise of the Revolution in the fires of the Civil War.

But exposing this myth is only a part of Schama’s project: having knocked American liberty off its pedestal, he wants to install British freedom in its place. Rough Crossings presents Britain as the ‘deliverer’ of African Americans in the Revolutionary era, and produces three episodes to sustain this unusual argument. First, in the years before the American Revolution, British anti-slavery campaigners worked to free black slaves in England who had been brought back from the Caribbean by their masters. These efforts culminated in the Somerset decision of 1772, a legal circumlocution which may not actually have ended slavery but which persuaded a good many people – planters included – that it had done. During the Revolution itself, the loyal British governor of Virginia, the Earl of Dunmore, offered the slaves of Patriot farmers freedom in return for military service. Dunmore’s strategy was taken up by other British commanders, and thousands of African Americans secured their liberty before the war’s conclusion. Finally, in the post-Revolutionary period, the British evacuated freed slaves as well as whites to Canada, the Caribbean and even to Britain. When some black Loyalists experienced hardship in their new surroundings – especially in crowded London and in the harsh climate of Nova Scotia – British philanthropists created the colony of Sierra Leone. Schama’s three examples offer a clear contrast with the new United States. While Britain was abolishing slavery at home, freeing slaves in the Revolutionary War and providing ‘a meaningful degree of local law and self-government’ in Sierra Leone, Americans were building a new republic that protected Southern slavery and marginalised free blacks in the Northern states.

Did Britain do a much better job than America of advancing black freedom between 1770 and 1800? British and American anti-slavery campaigners faced very different situations. In 1787 – when Americans drafted their constitution, and British philanthropists dispatched the first settlers to Sierra Leone – there were perhaps 15,000 black people in Britain, out of a population of nearly 10 million. In the United States, around 750,000 black people (90 per cent of them slaves) lived alongside three million or so whites. In other words, almost 20 per cent of the American population was black, and just 0.15 per cent of the British population. In Britain, slavery was a moral and an economic problem: by the 1780s, the moral argument against slavery had largely been won, and so anti-slavery campaigners could attack the economic argument that West Indian plantations were essential to the success of the British Empire. In America, by contrast, slavery was a political and social problem. What would happen if more than half a million slaves were suddenly freed? The received wisdom of many observers in the early republic, from Jefferson to Tocqueville, was that blacks and whites would engage in a genocidal war.

Before the Abolition Act of 1833, Britain had managed to externalise the social dangers of slavery while retaining the profits. British ships dominated the slave trade in the 18th century, and slave-produced sugar anchored the British economy from the 1640s until at least 1815. Even the planters of the Caribbean opted for absentee ownership, distancing themselves from the social consequences of their avarice. The American plantocracy, by contrast, enjoyed the benefits of slavery in uncomfortable proximity to its black victims. Schama overlooks the divergent contexts of slavery in the Atlantic world, and tells a simpler story of British vision and courage against American foot-dragging.

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[*] A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Harvard, 624 pp., £12.95, April 2005, 0 674 01765 x).

[†] In Black Experience and the Empire, edited by Philip Morgan and Sean Hawkins (Oxford, 432 pp., £15.99, May, 0 19 929067 9).