Monday, May 26, 2014

SLAVERY: USA Before 1776 (Superseded)

(This post has been superseded by one on June 24, 2014, here.)

Slave traders. Benjamin Franklin argued that slavery
in the West Indies was immoral, but not such much
in the American mainland colonies. Slavery themes
were applied to relations between colonies and Britain.
I just acquired a book by historian David Waldstreicher called Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery and the American Revolution (Hill and Wang, division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004).

It was an eye-opener for me. It shows that Franklin himself was a runaway, from a despotic brother and father and the contract that they signed with him binding him to work for them. Yet Franklin relied on slave labor at home and in his business and his newspaper relied heavily on advertising from slave auctioneers and from slaveowners pursuing runaways.

Waldstreicher's book could be considered a guide to omissions and errors in Franklin's Autobiography. It therefore falls into the category of a debunking history, useful because it helps explain how slavery was treated in pre-Revolutionary America.

We know that after the Revolution, historians give great credit to the abolitionists who, in due course, stirred up emotions on both sides that precipitated the Civil War. Benjamin Franklin is counted among these abolitionists.

But before the Revolution, Franklin was much less activist on the subject of slavery within mainland American colonies. Before the Revolution, antagonism toward slaveowners emerged in a roundabout way. The 1764 revenue tax on French and Dutch sugar benefited British plantation owners. They were able to raise their prices, at the expense of people living in the mainland colonies. At the time, the British Parliament considered the West Indies a far more profitable part of the world for them than the mainland, and the objections of the mainlanders, represented in England by Franklin among others, did not get much of a hearing.

The reaction back home of those in the colonies was one of outrage at both Parliament and the "nabob" plantation owners in the West Indies. One form it took was opposition to slavery–opposition to slavery in the plantations and opposition to the slavery of the colonies to the mother country. It did not mean questioning the existence of slavery in the colonies, where the concentration of power and money was not as great as in the West Indies.

Franklin and other leaders in the colonies–Steven Hopkins, Governor of Rhode Island, and James Otis, a writer who pushed the anti-slavery arguments to the extreme–painted a picture of all residents of the colonies being slaves to the British crown and Parliament.

The Revolutionary spirit did not precede the antislavery argument, as has often been taught. Instead, the Revolution can be said to have emerged from taking antislavery arguments applied to the wealthy British West Indies slaveowners and applying them to the relations between the colonies and the mother country.  (Waldstreicher, pp. 177-179.)

So the pre-Revolutionary colonies were antislavery relative to the West Indies, their leaders took the view that "slaves, or their labor, was unimportant in mainland America" (Waldstreicher, p. 180). Their sugar slavers were evil, whereas the colonies were slaveowners in some kind of moderation, and were okay.

Benjamin Franklin maintained a dialog on slavery issues in Britain with David Hume, William Pitt, Lord Mansfield, Lord Hillsborough, William Knox and Samuel Johnson. Franklin is described as being "downright crafty" in making the case for the innocence of the American colonies. In England, Franklin shifted his focus on the labor of the American colonies to the importance of the land in contributing to British welfare, while insisting that Americans "are not, never were, nor ever will be [Britain's] slaves."

Franklin was supported by former Prime Minister William Pitt (alumnus of Trinity College, Oxford), who in retirement opposed the taxes and echoed Franklin's argument that the American colonists  were not slaves of the British. Pitt was a hero to Americans because his soldiers had chased the French and their Indian allies from the colonies during the Seven Years ("French and Indian") War.

Slavery was "present at the creation" of the United States, but not in a way that we might remember accurately without Waldstreicher's parsing. A worthwhile point to make.

Comment (added June 3, 2014)

Waldstreicher could have added some numbers that would have helped Benjamin Franklin make his case regarding the difference between slavery in the American colonies and in the Caribbean and Brazil. Slavery in the colonies was horrible, but slavery in the other places was even more horrible.

One source says that 12 million slaves were brought from Africa to the Americas during the most active decades of the slave trade. During that entire period, 287,000 slaves were brought to the North American colonies. Most of the 11.7 million other slaves were sold in the Caribbean Islands and Brazil, where they had a short life expectancy with no family life and needed, in the blind language of the time, to be "replenished". In the United States, slaves in homes and on farms usually were given their own places to live, and they often were allowed to have children, and their life expectancy was for the most part much higher than in the other parts of the continent where slaves were used.

In the 17th century, the colonies imported 21,000 slaves. In the 18th century up to 1760, 189,000 slaves were imported. In the 1760s, another 63,000. In the 1770s, another 15,000

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